© 2018 paulwhankins

Summer Drumming: “Sun Totem #1” and the Kent State University Shootings of 1970

“To Know Something Then is to Know Something New”

This is a different kind of post as it is the personal narrative sample from my multi-genre project I am doing with my students in Room 407 this spring. The idea behind the piece for those students who have this piece as part of their project’s “track” is to say something about the self while entering into a project regarding a particular subject. I am looking at the sculpture that stands in front of Taylor Hall at Kent State University still today as it did in 1970. I want to demonstrate for our students that when we write, we write with an audience in mind. Not an audience of one. I do not write this piece for any one teacher. I am writing this piece for myself and for anyone else who feels disconnected from his or her own sense of history or cannot find their place by way of passion into a moment of time for not having an opportunity to look into the moment through a multi-modal lens. Thank you for considering this longer piece. I welcome your feedback. 

Nescire autem quid ante quam natus sis acciderit, id est semper esse puerum. “Not to know what happened before you were born, that is to be always a boy, to be forever a child.” I first heard these words quoted by Deepak Mehta, a student in the fictionalized classroom of Mr. William (portrayed by Kevin Kline) Hundert who teaches Western Civilization: The Romans and the Greeks in the 2002 film, The Emperor’s Club. The words of course do not belong to this teenage boy; he is quoting the immortal words of Cicero, a philosopher who the young man is learning about in the course of his studies with a teacher who has a deep appreciation of antiquity and the wisdom that comes from the ages, their sages, and the pages that are left behind of the work and the words.

I have shown this film a number of times in the classroom over the course of my teaching career. It’s themes of conquest in the absence of contribution and the willingness and ability to amend mistakes made no matter the time passed are those I want in the cloud of conversation that swirls around the room each year before the dust of dialogue settles in early June. And this is the moment that stays with me by way of setting and script and cinematography, a montage of students answering questions related to the subject matter at hand. In one singular moment within that montage is Mehta’s hand and the words, “Not to know what happened before you were born is remain ever a child.”

I am not a historian by way of passion, pursuit, or practice and yet the literature I share in the classroom finds its rootwad in the past. I bring character and conflict  to the present by sharing with students who are moving evermore quickly into the 21st century . The Puritan Proctor goes to trial before students whose awareness of court proceedings are limited to what they see depicted on Judge Judy. The migrant workers, George and Lennie, carry their work cards and bus tickets to the next ranch while my students are able to apply online to gain employment at any given retail store. The backdrop of the O.J. Simpson trial in Tuesdays with Morrie is lost to the new noise of his release in the fall that we are just beginning to re-enter the Mitch Albom narrative of his special journey with a favorite professor. As more and more history is made every single day, I find myself distancing myself further and further from the students I teach. Whereas I was only seventeen years older than my students when I first began my journey into teaching, I find that this year’s students are now separated from me by over three decades. By the time I am ready to leave the room, I will have four and a half decades on the youngest student the room. 

And, then, in the life and the recordings of a classroom. . .I will be history.

The spirit of a classroom regenerates each fall with the new crop of teens. They leave a small impression over the course of one hundred and eighty days. There is only one person in the classroom who ever gets any older.

And that person is me.

I am the ring that is recorded for what happens or doesn’t happen in our season together, teacher and student. 

And as I find time moving quicker and quicker ahead of me, each Friday reminding me that a week has past before I’ve reconciled Monday, I find myself going back, back, and back to try to recapture and to understand with more clarity the people and the events that had changed the course of history when I was a baby, a child, a student, a young adult, and, finally, an adult. My students are no different from me in their casual dismissal of current events swirling around them than I was when humans held hostage were suddenly released back to their families and their freedom or the space shuttle exploded before my eyes on the mounted television in my high school classroom or when a wall erected to separate a people came crashing down or when the life’s work of a man who collected stories from across cultures ended when he died in the beginning of my senior year, some decade and a half before I would ever encounter and catch up with the gift of his work across ages, sages, and pages.

Now, I find a sense of comfort in the closure of looking at the event of the past and at the time of my birth. Like a toddler who wants to want the same thirty-minute television show over and over again, there is this comfort that comes of beginnings, middles, and ends that perhaps the current generation has no ability in the moment to enjoy by way of calm and peace and centering.

A young person’s world is shifting under them each and every minute and each and every day.

And, so I go back. And I look again. Because when I discuss history with those who know historical events, I feel as though I am a child. There is a hole that one could put a finger into or look through that exists in my formative education. One that can only be welded with new awareness. The idea that to know something then by looking through the lens of now is to learn and to know something new. I have the luxury of being able to dip back into the moment of my past because today’s generation are creating technologies that allow me to access moments in history with a search, a click, a link, another page. And I am grateful to them as much as I pity them for their inability to stop and scoop a moment of time for themselves, a keepsake of the day that this event occurs before the next flood of frenzy fills their screens and their streams.

What I find of the gift that is given me via technology as an aide to inquiry is that I don’t have to give up any part of my own passions or pursuits in order to bring the past to the present. Looking at a historical event like the 1970 Kent State University shootings still allows me to find something of me in the event of which I am a part by exploration only and not experience.

I find the lyrics to a Neil Young song that I remember and I have a playlist.

I find the sculpture that stood between the National Guard unit and students on that fateful day when four students lost their lives and I find art in the midst of great chaos and tragedy.

I find narratives digitized and loaded up to video sharing sites and I am afforded the gift of stories inside and outside of an event that help to clarify the facts and figures I might find in a book.

And as I grow into this almost-fifty place and 1970, one moment in time and space, I find my center in words and images and narrative and I begin to think that the whole world is just one large multi-genre project. I am not burdened by the idea that there may be a test for me at the end of my exploration but rather that I find a toehold in the moment by which I can make a real connection to the history that may have escaped me my first time around.

And to my students current and future, I might submit that our subject, X, whatever it may be for us by way of individual pursuit or consideration collective, is really nothing more than the familiar cartesian plane wherein I and we may find the points and plots while also finding the people and prose and the poetry.

As I try to grow into a deeper sense of personhood by returning to the events of my childhood, it is of great comfort to drop into a scene and to know that nothing has been moved. Maybe a new tree grows in the place that was once a grove. Perhaps a building has a new addition that one only need to look at the seams to find the new. The clothing and the cars appear as they might have on that very day. If. . .I am allowed to believe in ghosts. And, if I am open to listen to them whispering to me, “Listen to our story and the event can become yours to share, not in a book but by what you come to know and to believe in what we have to share with you.”

There is a bullet hole that remains in a sculpture at Kent State University. It has been there for almost forty-eight years. In my attempt to grow out of my childhood, I hope to look through that hole to see a story unfold. And I will bring that story back with a new sense of growth in having an opportunity to know something new by revisiting a something of then.

I am a multi-genre man with a multi-genre past. I bring this awareness with me as I go back forty-eight years to May 4th, 1970.

As a student.

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