General George Washington Resigning His Commission by John Trumbull. Photo by the Architect of the Capitol.
I remember the first — and last — time I was part of a conspiracy. It was 1985, and I was in the 10th grade.
The history and English classes were scheduled back to back that year to allow the teachers to take advantage of time and space. Time, so that they could blend into a single session occasionally; space, because the school was built on an open plan. There were no walls between the classrooms in this part of the school, so three classes could become a single large group as needed.
We had reached the American Revolution portion of the curriculum, and we were deep in the throes of a model Continental Congress. That meant a full week of large group classes. About 100 students participated, and each had been given a particular historical delegate to re-enact. Model United Nations was a popular extracurricular activity, so the students most well-versed in that were put in charge of the congress.
In theory, it was to see what would happen if we were allowed to work through it ourselves, keeping what we knew of each historical person and colony, and how they argued originally. It would allow us to work through the issues for ourselves. In practice, if anyone deviated from the facts, they were immediately called on it by a teacher and walked back.
By this point in the year, they’d figured out how to handle me, more or less — partly to keep me from being bored, partly to keep me busy. I was not one of the delegates myself, nor was I an actual historical figure. I was in “the press,” portraying an editor, and I had two additional reporters. We put together a news report of sorts: I reported on one day’s events at the beginning of the next. Once I realized that nothing unusual or new was going to happen, I could write out a basic plan for the rest of the week, and just mark off where to stop before “predicting” what was about to happen.
Keeping me “writing” was supposed to keep me interested, and allow me to be “creative” without disrupting the business of the congress. Of course, sticking so close to the historical record meant it was even less interesting than usual. It’s not that I was bored by learning; I was bored by the teaching.
On the second day, I hatched a plan. We would kill George Washington.
A swiftly tilting continent
With the nascent congress cut off from the potential father of our country, what might shift? How might the balance of power tilt? What might different colonies have been able to achieve — for weal or woe? That was interesting to me, and it seemed like a much more useful lesson than rote repetition — we’d get the real history either way, but this would teach us to think and reason instead of recite.
Over my six-year secondary school career — ours ran together 7th through 12th grades — I became friends with a history teacher with whom I had classes four of those six years, but not in 10th grade. One of the things that frustrated him most was the focus on repetition. “We should be teaching people to think, not to memorize,” he would say. That might have been echoing in my head.
My biggest mistake was asking permission, which I felt I should, because my plan would have hijacked the classes without warning. Controlled chaos for a moment with advance warning would be better, I thought. The point wasn’t the panic but the opportunity in the aftermath.
I met with each teacher in the group individually and as a group on that second day. How were we proposing to kill Washington? Were all of the members of the press in on this? Who would be a plausible delegate to involve? Why did we want to do this again? In retrospect, I doubt you could even propose such a thing nowadays. You might even get whisked off to see the school counselors at the very least.
Needless to say, they had to think about it. The congress continued apace.
Set this house in order
Day three came, and still no word. In the break between class periods, I pressed the issue. There were concerns. Nothing about the idea or the act itself; nothing about the thought of a toy gun. (And it was very obviously a toy gun — a piece of merchandise from the height of the TV western, circa 1959.)
No, all of the concerns were about confusing the students, who would be tested based solely on the facts. This might be interesting as a roleplaying game, but it wouldn’t teach anyone the multiple choice answers. Naturally, there was no essay question.
I was negotiated down to a thwarted assassination attempt as a “fun” way to open the fourth day, then we went straight back to business as usual. I could make a joke in our press briefing about “unseemly influences from certain members of the press corps” with links to the attempt, noting an ongoing investigation, and that was the —30—.1
The part that kills me — so to speak — is that I could not tell you the first thing about who did what at the Continental Congress, for all their concern about keeping to the actual events. I still have flashbacks to the musical 1776, but that’s pretty light on historical fact as well.2
It’s the old “give a man a fish/teach a man to fish” story. This might have jarred us out of the same old static repetition and maybe let some creativity bloom in the room, even if we didn’t remember every detail correctly. We can always look up a fact; we always could. But interpreting that fact critically — finding out that some of what we were taught was complete fabrication — would have lasted longer.
I worry about my own children now as they navigate today’s school system — no, that’s not quite right. I worry about the school system. These kids’ll be just fine.
David J. Loehr is a playwright. He is the artist-in-residence with the Riverrun Theatre in Madison, Indiana, as well as the editor of 2amt.com. His work has been performed at the Capital Fringe Festival, Capslock Theatre, South Carolina Rep, Glass Mind Theatre, and Actors Theatre of Louisville, among others. He is a husband, father, masked avenger, and cat bed.