The History Teacher – Billy Collins – Analysis

The History Teacher

Trying to protect his student’s innocence
he told them the Ice Age was really just
the Chilly Age, a period of a million years
when everyone had to wear sweaters.

And the Stone Age became the Gravel Age,
named after the long driveways of the time.

The Spanish Inquisition was nothing more
than an outbreak of questions such as
“How far is it from here to Madrid?”
“What do you call the matador’s hat?”

The War of the Roses took place in a garden,
and the Enola Gay dropped one tiny atom
on Japan.

The children would leave his classroom
for the playground and torment the weak
and the smart,
mussing up their hair and breaking their glasses,

while he gathered his notes and walked home
past flower beds and white picket fences,
wondering if they would believe that soldiers
in the Boer War told long, rambling stories
designed to make the enemy nod off.

Billy Collins

This is essentially a list poem on innocence and the use of word-play in a fun interpretation to give that nice sense of humour behind the question on how we portray reality to children.

I tell the grand children that ‘global warming’ is all about the warm fuzzy generated because of the increase in world population.

But how do we protect children from the horrors that unfortunately exist – they will have to find out sometime that life has an uncomfortable side. They will have to come to terms with this aspect as they grow up. In the playground they already know that a nasty side exists so it won’t be a total shock.

But I think there is a natural tendency to keep that beautiful innocence in the young child by modifying and filtering input. All I can say is use your own judgement in your transactions and give balance so that both the white and the black are visible in some form. And I would add of course that we all know the ‘goodies’ always will win in the end!

And on a much more series note some protection is essential where damaging exclusive ideologies are perpetrated to seriously influence the gullible youth.

But back to the poem, looking at this History Teacher as he walks home in the closing text – past flower beds and white picket fences – we see that he is somewhat detached from the nasties of the world. Perhaps it is the History Teacher who wants to deny what is happening elsewhere and blindly colours his comfortable world in a camouflage of roses – his survival mechanism.

This poem reminds me of that wonderful 1997 Italian tragicomedy movie ‘Life is Beautiful’. Perhaps this is the only mechanism of survival in such dire circumstances as portrayed in this film – using the mind in the creation of another world.

Billy Collins was American Poet Laureate between 2001 and 2003 … a link to Wikipedia.

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