There are two maxims that I tell my history students over and over again, so much so that I’m sure they now mimic me behind my back when I’m not looking. These are not adages that originated with me—I got them from my advisor, who, I know, got them from his advisor, and so on (probably). I don’t mind not being original here. Especially as a historian, I appreciate the sense of continuity. Perhaps someday, one of my students will become a professor and they’ll share these old saws with their students. The first is that no matter what narrative you hold in front of you, the truth is always more complicated than that. Historians and chroniclers, like novelists and con-men, make choices. Whether in a 50-minute lecture or a 400-page book, historians may tell you everything they know, but that does not mean they’ve said everything that can and needs to be said. The second maxim is that it’s different in the south. At first, students usually register confusion over this, then it (mostly) gets a laugh. But if you think about it long enough, no matter what place or period in history you’re talking about, you can always find variation to the south of wherever your topic might be. In a way, “it’s different in the south” is just shorthand for “even when you think you’ve figured things out, expect variation.”
Historians obsess about the past. Okay. Maybe obsess is too strong a word. We think about it, talk about it, teach about it, write about it. It’s nasty work, but somebody has to do it.
I’ll turn sixty-one this summer. I can now say, without blinking, how I did something thirty or forty years ago and I was already grown up and out of my parents’ house when I did it. I now, officially, have a past. It’s my past. And while I might reasonably care about it, why would anyone else? I’ve had an interesting life. At least that’s what other people tell me. I think it’s been interesting because I’ve always done exactly what I wanted to do, and that has never been the same thing for too long. When something stopped being what I wanted to do, I stopped doing it and went and did something else. At least that’s the narrative I tell myself. Of course, it’s more complicated than that. And it’s different in the south.
Because I’ve always done what I wanted at any given point in my life, I’ve always thought that I would be immune to anything resembling a midlife crisis. I did not go to law school just because my father wanted me to, and then at 45 run away to join the circus. I started out my adult life by running away with the circus, and I have no intention of ever going to law school. This is not to say that going to law school is bad, or that running away to join the circus is all it’s cracked up to be. It’s more complicated than that. Neither did I marry the wrong woman at much too young an age only to end up regretting my choice and divorcing her many years later. I did not then follow this up by sleeping with lots of much younger women on the rebound in middle age. I started out by sleeping with lots of women, mostly older, then, realizing the limitations of this, opted to sleep with fewer and fewer. This is not to say that sleeping with lots of women is bad or good. It’s not something I say to brag, or to express shame or regret. It’s just the way life went for me, the life that I made for myself. It’s different in the south.
I have had three careers in my life and three major relationships. I’ve had a number of stupid jobs to just get by, and a number of frivolous love affairs for more or less the same reason. I am not world famous, though I have been slightly famous in my chosen fields, even to the point of being recognized by strangers on the street. I have not overcome great social or economic or physical or psychological adversity. I have not changed the world in any dramatic way, though I think I’ve changed it in small, steady, significant ways. I’ve been a circus clown and a graphic designer. I am now a professor of ancient and medieval history. I’ve also been a dog walker, a truck driver, a sandwich maker, a waiter, a house cleaner, a telemarketer, a carpenter’s apprentice, and an art mover. Who cares?
I have raised no children of my own, though that story, too, is more complicated. I have entertained, and reared, and counseled, and mentored, and loved, and now teach other people’s children. Who cares? All teachers do this, even those who have children of their own. People who have children don’t worry so much about leaving a legacy. At least that’s what I imagine. I’m not really part of that group so I may be guessing here, or just making it up. To people with children, their children are their legacy. Of course, they must worry about what kind of legacy their children will be. This legacy could range from lawyer to dentist to university sniper—the latter of which is the walking nightmare that Steve Martin has about his cinematic children in Ron Howard’s “Parenthood.” But without children of one’s own, what legacy do we leave. For business magnates this seems to be the wealth they create. For politicians it’s about the laws they pass and the policies they impose. For college presidents it’s about building new buildings on campus.
For teachers, our legacy is our students. Will they be useful? Will they be ethical? Might they be noble? Nothing brightens the day of a professor more than hearing from a former student about what they’ve done with their life, and, if you’re lucky, how you made a difference in it. As a writer, I try to avoid clichés like the plague (!), but this cliché is so packed with truth--Goodbye Mr. Chips, To Sir With Love, Mr. Holland’s Opus—that it cannot be avoided or denied. I have this vivid memory of watching a teacher movie (one of my many guilty pleasures) and seeing this cliché parodied, I think by Teri Garr, playing a neurotic high school teacher. “Every student has at least one teacher who makes a difference in her life,” the teacher tells a student with whom she’s trying to establish some rapport. Then, manic, she screams, “And I’m that teacher for you!”