I am a certified history nerd. I take all history classes, read history blogs, go on long Wikipedia adventures, and even regale people I have barely met with random historical facts. I have not always been this way, however; in fact, there was a time that for me the word "history" was synonymous with the most painful extremes of boredom.
The roots of my initial aversion lay not in history, but in the way it was being taught to me. Attending a suburban public school outside of Boston, I learned the mandatory and devastatingly standardized history lessons force-fed to every American child. Columbus discovered America. The Germans were evil. Slavery was bad. These abstract and unelaborated facts did little to spark my imagination. The same can probably be said for millions of other American kids, but in my case especially, I just didn't get textbook history. The teacher's words could have been the most earth-shattering revelations ever made and I still would have been slouched in the back of the class chewing on my pencil and staring out the window. Most kids have trouble paying attention in class, but I was not like most kids when it came to learning.
In third grade, I was diagnosed with Non-verbal Learning Disability (NVLD). The first in my school system to be diagnosed with the disability, my early school years were nothing if not brutal for me, and especially my parents. The nature of the disability is an imbalance between the left and right sides of the brain. The effect of this imbalance is that my verbal skills have always been developed beyond my age, while my non-verbal skills have always lagged behind. I read Lord of the Rings when I was nine, yet even now, at 21, I get lost all the time and can't for the life of me get organized. This disability also usually comes with an element of hyperactivity and a short attention span, so it was incredibly difficult for me to sit through an entire history class. The basic teacher-blackboard-lecture formula just didn't provide enough stimulation to keep my attention, and the requirement of written feedback only confirmed my inability to communicate non-verbally. With an enormous amount of help from my parents and my school's special ed. department, along with the fact that I've always been very good at rote memorization, I was able to pass all of my history classes up through high school. It was, however, painfully boring for me. All the great names and events of history existed only as words on paper for me. The history I was learning was lacking its most important aspect, the story.
Everything changed my junior year of high school. I ended up in an honors history class with a teacher named Daniel Frio. Mr. Frio did not, like so many other teachers, restrict himself to textbook history. In fact, I don't think we even had a textbook. Every class he would come in, sit down on his desk, and tell us stories. Stories about WWII, stories about the civil rights movement, stories about his own experiences growing up, all with a candor and depth far beyond anything I had ever experienced in the classroom. He treated us like adults, and while many of us could not act the part, it made us want to try. One of the most memorable moments in the class was when Mr. Frio brought in projector and for three days in a row showed us the AMERICAN EXPERIENCE Eyes on the Prize documentary.
It was this moment when I truly fell in love with history. What Eyes on the Prize did for me was connect the visceral nature of historical film with the intellectual and moral issues of academic history. What I saw on the screen that day was something you rarely see in a history lesson: people. As I watched these aged and eloquent African Americans recount their harrowing experiences, all of the their pain, anger, pride, and dignity suddenly became a part of the history I already knew quite well. Not simply names associated with dates and events; these people became real, their stories, reality. To these people Martin Luther King Jr. was not just a name or a figurehead. He was not a saint, a martyr, or even a great leader. To these people he was first, and always, a friend. As proud as they were of what he and they accomplished, they truly missed their friend. Those days in class began an addiction to historical documentaries (especially AMERICAN EXPERIENCE), and I haven't looked back yet.
Mr. Frio made me realize that, since life is completely unpredictable, we must not look at history as a series of calculated actions and reactions, but as a random and painfully unstructured manifestation of human nature. AMERICAN EXPERIENCE is not about what happened, or why it happened, but about whom it happened to. The only way to portray history in an unbiased way is to forgo moral judgments of all parties, to avoid letting the ends justify the means, to avoid rooting for the underdog, to realize that every person who has ever found themselves immortalized in the annals of history probably got there by accident. History is really just a very long and terribly confusing film about the highest and lowest capabilities of the human race. AMERICAN EXPERIENCE did what a blackboard never could -- it gave me the remote.
Brett Banhazl is a history and film studies major at Hamilton College in upstate New York. He is currently an intern at AMERICAN EXPERIENCE.
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