Friday, 9 May 2014
The Lesson of History
Teaching history is an area of scholarship fraught with politically charged danger for the unwary. In mixed sex, mixed ability, multi-ethnic classes it is hard to find an episode in Britain’s past that doesn’t press the offence trigger for some national or special interest group or other and it is impossible to tell the history of the modern world without mentioning the British. History teacher Dave checks his privilege every time he begins a sentence; his students are quick to spot a potential slur, no matter how innocent the intent.
The beginning of term was easy enough, covering the Roman occupation of Britain. Boudicca was a suitably inclusive and morally positive icon for the girls in the class, or as he had learned to call them, the cis-gendered, non-body image challenged equal females and the indigenous white British boys were too dull to pick up on the air of smug superiority exuded by the
oily-haired well groomed Tommaso as he recounted the achievements of his
ancient Italian ancestry.
Despite its only being a myth, the programme allowed for the teaching of the court of Camelot. The Arthurian legend was deemed to be inclusive enough for all nationalities, creeds and colours, adopted as it had been by Hollywood and turned into a worldwide franchise. Plus it had the added bonus that limitless online material was available for research and there was no shortage of footage Dave could display on the big screen in the classroom, enabling him to take the occasional crafty fag break while his pupils gawped.
The Boxer Rebellion caused a few heart-stopping moments as the unnerving and inscrutable gaze of the usually silent twins Bao-Zhi and Cheng-Gong threatened to put a
chink dent in his multiculturally sensitive
armour. Thankfully he managed to negotiate those treacherous waters and tell the
dramatic story of the rise of Jardine Matheson, the opium wars and the development
of Hong Kong without any obvious mishap.
But there was one period in British history that Dave felt he had to skirt round. Fully a third of his pupils hailed from various Indian subcontinental backgrounds, so the story of the British Raj was always going to be tricky. He had both Hindus and Sikhs in his class, who seemed happy enough to rub along, as well as a good proportion of muslims whose parents insisted they observe their religious dress and differences and maintain their strict rituals. Dave hated to admit it but he felt he was under scrutiny the whole time for causing some infidel slight or other, punishable under sharia law.
As the time to deliver this part of the syllabus neared, Dave found ever more inventive ways of delaying the inevitable, while constantly scrutinising his lesson plans for any hint of the ever-threatening, unintentional, white-man’s casual disregard for cultural sensitivities. It was Friday, the day he had steeled himself for Naveed or Haroon or one of the several Mohammeds to interject and correct his clumsy racism. He gazed out at the class and bottled it.
Instead he decided to take a detour into European history; the Black Hole of Calcutta could wait until Monday. Quickly selecting a different PowerPoint presentation he told the tale of the valiant Swiss hero of the fifteenth century. The class sat in rapt silence as he recounted the actions of William, or Willhelm, from Bürglen, the strong man, mountain climber, and expert shot with the crossbow. He felt he was on safe ground as he told of William’s defiance of the Habsburgs, his subsequent arrest and the deal that was made.
Warming to his theme and sensing the end of the lesson drawing nearer Dave built on the tension as he told of the single-shot chance William had to save the life of himself and his son, Walter. But suddenly he was aware of a hand waving in the air. Sure enough, one of the Mohammeds had something to say. “Sir, sir!” he urged. Despite the fact that he had been born in England the accent was pure Pakistani. “Yes, Mohammed?” asked Dave, wondering what on earth he had said wrong this time.
Unknown to most historians, William had an
older and less fortunate son named Warren
“Sir, sir” repeated Mohammed, “you got that all wrong, sir!” The class waited, holding their breath. “You see, sir, that man, the one with the apple on the little boy’s head? Well he was one of ours, sir.” Dave breathed a sigh of relief. The little shit had nothing on him, but he was nevertheless intrigued, “What do you mean ‘one of yours’?” he asked confidently. Mohammed replied, quick as a flash, “Well, it's his name, sir, innit? William Patel!”