- Historic Sites
I Wish I’d Known
A high school history project brings forth responses from an extraordinary variety of people
February/March 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 1
Three years ago I spent my summer vacation trying to find a new way to help persuade the students in my class at Haverhill High School in Haverhill, Massachusetts, that history is not a dead subject but a vital one valued by many people today. I got an idea when I was leafing through an old copy of American Heritage and saw an article by a history teacher who had written to various politicians, military leaders, and authors asking them what he should teach his students about the Vietnam War. He had received many wonderful responses.
I very much liked the idea of writing well-known people to solicit their aid in teaching history. But how would I involve the students? I decided I would let them devise a question, choose the recipients, and each write to his or her own choice directly.
I gave them a single guideline: Pick someone you respect. Receiving an answer from such a person would bring a clear message: History matters to this person you admire, so maybe it should matter to you. In September the students and I spent a good deal of time formulating the question. They wanted one that would elicit interesting and varied answers; I wanted one whose answers, rather than being ends in themselves, would be jumping-off points for the students’ own research.
The question we arrived at was: “Whom do you wish you had been taught more about in history class, but weren’t? Why?”
We hoped that by adding “but weren’t,” we were encouraging the respondent to consider why he or she hadn’t been taught more about the person. Moreover, once a response was in hand, the student would have to embark on a research project about the person named.
The results have been extraordinary. Our respondents ranged from Oprah Winfrey to Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, Muhammad Ali, and a confident Chuck Yeager (“I don’t have any! They taught me all I needed to know”). The wonderful variety of people who answered and their willingness to share their thoughts greatly affected the students. Even the most cynical were impressed by the number of replies. I think American Heritage readers will be too.
Game-show host (and Haverhill High School alumnus)
I’ve always been fascinated by how we harness, or fail to harness, our creative gifts. We all have some. Depending on our circumstances, those gifts either blossom or decay. Buster Keaton’s life and work provide a look at both extremes.
He was a true visionary, and his story speaks not only to the power of creativity but to the complexity that fuels it. I think you’ll find him a fascinating subject (and you get to watch some hilarious movies as part of your own research)!
I always thought it would have been fun to study Jean Lafitte . He was an infamous pirate I read about and heard about from my grandfather, who was a sailing captain on big merchant ships when I was just a young boy. Lafitte actually helped Andrew Jackson defeat the British at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815. I was very intrigued by the type of life he led, and it inspired me to read some of the classic books, like
Brion Gysin, a great but neglected painter. He taught me everything I know about painting.
There are no great politicians in my book. All liars. Lies come as natural as breathing to a politician and as necessary for his or her political survival.
Former First Lady
I’m delighted you have taken such an active interest in history, which is why I’m thrilled to participate in Haverhill High School’s project. While I cannot pinpoint one important person whom I wish I had studied more, I do want to offer you a little personal opinion.
I firmly believe it is important to study successful people—people who have made a real difference in their family, school, community, or place of worship. Successful people do not necessarily have to be famous like Hollywood celebrities or sports figures or people you always read about in the paper or see on television. Truly successful people are all around us. My advice to you is to seek out the great role models right there in Haverhill. Find out what makes them tick and study their good qualities and habits.
Above all, remember that you determine your success. You determine what path you take in life, and if you give everything you do your all, seek the truth, and share credit, your opportunities are unlimited.
James Madison. Why him? Because he is the man mainly responsible for writing the United States Constitution. That document is what makes America great, because it’s the set of rules by which we all live, and those rules allow us to make America into what it is.