A common adage states a great teacher doesn’t teach you what to think, they teach you how to think. JoAnn DaSilva’s 8:00 AM United States History course—my first class of the day junior year of high school—was a daily exercise in critical analysis I’ll always remember.
Mrs. DaSilva did more than teach my classmates and me an overview of pivotal episodes in the nation’s history. She gave us the tools to evaluate the nuances of America’s past by investigating the source material itself. We read sections of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States and other non-standard texts alongside our official class textbook to examine how accounts covering the same historical events varied and conflicted. Zinn’s book, both lauded and criticized for deconstructing the American mythos as “the most ingenious system of control in world history,” was particularly memorable for me—particularly his description of the Haymarket affair, the 1886 Chicago protest that culminated in police killing three striking workers and the hangings of four anarchists. While tragic, the event gave energy to the labor movement widely-credited with delivering a federally recognized eight-hour work day. Comparing this account with the textbook’s cursory mention of a “labor disturbance” in late 19th-century Chicago, I was flabbergasted that such a defining moment had been glossed over. Our class discussions revealed I wasn’t the only one who was surprised.
Mrs. DaSilva further challenged us to think about why such vastly different versions of history exist—and why certain stories had become an official part of our public high school’s curriculum. Andrew Jackson’s systematic genocide of Native Americans, the corrosive influence of slavery on modern-day mass incarceration—why weren’t these injustices emphasized in my textbook? When our class began studying for the Advanced Placement exam at the end of the year, I began to wonder which historical events and figures the AP Board would (and wouldn’t) include in the questions and prompts.
Through these discussions, Mrs. DaSilva transformed my perspective on the ways historical phenomena have been serialized and given validity over time. This understanding has become even more significant as I’ve gotten older and began to observe fellow Americans contextualize their understanding of the past to frame their political arguments in the present.
That’s why I believe it is imperative to reflect on the classrooms where we first learned American history in order to more objectively examine our current politics, culture, and leaders—and work towards a better future. I am forever grateful for Mrs. DaSilva’s class: It’s where I first learned about some of America’s worst injustices, and as an adult, my memories of it have fueled my belief in our ability to strive toward a more progressive, inclusive, and equitable America.
In college, I read Miller William’s poem “Of History and Hope,” which has since become a favorite. One passage in particular makes me think of Mrs. DaSilva’s class, and Howard Zinn’s belief “that our future may be found in the past's fugitive moments of compassion, rather than in its solid centuries of warfare”:
Who were many people coming together
cannot become one people falling apart.
Who dreamed for every child an even chance
cannot let luck alone turn doorknobs or not.
Whose law was never so much of the hand as the head
cannot let chaos make its way to the heart.
Who have seen learning struggle from teacher to child
cannot let ignorance spread itself like rot.
We know what we have done and what we have said,
and how we have grown, degree by slow degree,
believing ourselves toward all we have tried to become—
just and compassionate, equal, able, and free.