A moment in the classroom
Searching through the list of war dead at Archives Canada’s website has sent me deep into a dark place. I shouldn’t be surprised because every time I teach about war in my Social Studies class, my heart constricts, my tear ducts work overtime to suppress the torrent that might be released, but oh not in front of my class today please.
Sharing these feelings with my students in an honest way has helped and when I do, I see a room of 32 youthful, uncertain, and concerned faces. To break the tension and to bring them back to their familiar and “chill” (their word) teacher, I move into my stand up routine (because really, that’s sometimes what teaching is).
Their collective breath release is palpable – phewf! I ask for a timekeeper – “give me 28 minutes and I’ll explain quickly the background, causes and events leading up to the outbreak of the first world war.” And I do it. Using acronyms from my notes and moving around the room in an animated way, I tell the story. Militarism. Alliances. Nationalism. Imperialism. Awful Governments. MANIA
I demonstrate with exaggeration the way Archduke Ferdinand’s assassin was wandering back home thinking it wasn’t going to happen, and then WHOOP … there it is! And I feel horrible. Move on.
We then watch with entranced horror, a 40 minute video that uses only archival footage and an appropriate narrator to show the four phases of the war. It ends with some numbers: about 8.5 million soldiers dead ; about 21 million wounded. Civilian – numbers range from 7.5 – 9 million killed or wounded.
Silence. Questions, clarification or comments? One girl sheepishly raises her hand. Yes? “Was that real?” Was that real? Oh dear. Yes, it was very real. These were real people taking the videos at the time of the fighting. Yes. And these were real people we saw running through the fields, anguishing in their trenches, fearful and brave? Yes. And I explain the role of war artists and journalists who documented the atrocities in the fields as well as the generals who planned from far away how the young men would spend their horrible days. “Wow! I had no idea!” No.
Today I came to the realisation that we are only two years away from the 100th anniversary of that horrific day in 1914 when the tensions of the region exploded into one of the bloodiest most horrific soul sucking events of the 20th century – brought on by men in power who just wanted more of everything and the impact of which is still felt today in so many parts of the world. WW1 and its aftermath (arbitrarily re-drawn borders, collapse of at least three empires, protectorate states, intense bitterness and resentment, for starters!) lead to the conditions that brought us straight to another global war. Some will argue, this blogger as well, that WW2 was simply a continued and technologically more advanced extension of the first world war. The Great War. The War to End All Wars. The “It will be over by Christmas” War. Kind of a WW 2.0, if you will.
My students are each researching the life of one soldier who fought and died in WW1. They are bringing this man to life through their work and I have reminded them in my most emphatic way that they need and must treat this assignment with respect and due reverence. It is an assignment I cherish and dread. I cherish because the students have an opportunity to see a real person in light of the vague discussion of their history classes and they will do a (mostly) great job. I dread, because I will read their creative letters from their soldier’s perspective and I know it’s going to break my heart.