Building Character by Looking Backwards

Mama was a high school history teacher. No, that’s not quite right. Mama was a history scholar who taught high school students to love history. I was one of those high school students, but I already loved history by the time she was my classroom teacher. Mama was teaching me to love history by the time I was cutting my teeth. She passed history along through stories, and boy could she ever tell a good story. The more dramatic, the better. My favorite stories involved the Greek and Roman myths, but her stories about American Indians* were a close second. She particularly was fond of stories about Sequoyah, Tenskwatawa and Tecumseh. Her stories always revolved around people and they were limitless. Alexander the Great, Atilla the Hun, Julius Caesar, Rasputin, Queen Elizabeth I, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, Catherine the Great, Ghandi, The Queen of Sheba, Cleopatra, Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln – just to name a few.

As I think of her now, with the benefit of the 52 years I spent with her while she was on this earth, I see how two character traits defined her. She was a woman not only of great compassion, but also of great empathy. I often saw her shed tears in the telling of a painful moment in history. Mama saw the good or perhaps the value in every human being. I suppose that could also be phrased a bit more precisely. As a starting point, Mama looked for the good in people. She did not begin by looking for the bad. Mama didn’t look for something to criticize – she looked for something to praise. Perspective makes a big difference. And even when she found the bad, she tried to understand the why of it. What’s more she could put herself in their shoes. She said not to judge someone unless you’ve walked a mile in his or her moccasins.

Because Mama was a history scholar, a geography scholar and a religious scholar she always had the the time line of history and the advent of civilization in mind when she analyzed a situation from the past. That allowed her to put historical figures and events into the context of the times and places in which they lived along with the prevailing ideas, mindsets and motivations of the times. In turn that allowed her to see those people through the fullness of objectivity. She could distinguish between her own beliefs, morals and social mores and those of a past time and another culture. That meant she could greatly admire someone like Andrew Jackson while yet seeing the tragedy, heartbreak and travesty of the Trail of Tears. I never knew my mother to banish someone from the annals of history for being less than perfect. Indeed, she would use human imperfection to teach life lessons.

Decades after my mother retired, her former students still tell me of how she impacted their lives. She gave them a worldview in a tiny rural town in South Alabama. Mama did not merely teach her students the events of history. She used the power of story to instill not just knowledge, but character in her students.

Mama had quite a personal library. I couldn’t bear to part with most of it after she died. A lot of it is packed away in storage. Here and there I made a feeble attempt at donating it to some library, but I never have. After the year 2020, I decided I would not part with it. People are re-writing history. People are cancelling historical figures as though they never lived. People are banning the sale of books. My mother, who read Lady Chatterley’s Lover wrapped in a brown paper cover, would be appalled. A woman who spent her entire life living by the motto that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it would be mortified. No, I won’t part with her books or the lessons she taught. I will hand those things down to my children and grandchildren and hope and pray that they will as well.

*I am using the terminology she would have used in the 1960’s because I am being authentic.