Written by R.J. Otis
In Indiana this is the adoption year for social studies textbooks. As history teachers at LaPorte High School this means we have to evaluate a rather wide range of textbooks for each subject taught within the department. So, last Tuesday I found myself at Strongbow’s Restaurant in Valparaiso listening to the sales pitch from the Prentice Hall representatives. I also found myself right next to Sid Reggie, a Hoosier legend in his own right and my world history teacher at Valparaiso High school 35 years ago. That’s right, Mr. Reggie has been teaching a long time and he’s still going strong. The most heartwarming thing I learned that evening was that he hasn’t changed much. He’s still pretty ornery. And for that I am grateful.
I was a sophomore when I had Sid Reggie for world history. It was a difficult year for me: unrelenting acne, painful shyness, no girl friend, serious, self-esteem issues. (It is why it hurts so much to be called sophomoric.) I loved history, though, and when I walked into Mr. Reggie’s class there was no chance to dwell on life’s little disappointments. The minute the bell rang we were marching into history. Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead! Man your historical battle stations! And off we marched.
Mr. Reggie marched us all over the world. If we weren’t inventing the wheel (he was there when it happened), we were building pyramids. When we crossed the Rubicon, we never looked back. We joined Alexander the Great on his conquest of the world. We learned the folly of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and rejoiced when we discovered that Hitler didn’t. We were partners in the Industrial Revolution and understood the importance of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. We knew how Alexander Graham Bell made the world a smaller place and how Guglielmo Marconi gave us rock and roll. We fought in the great world wars, in Korea, and Viet Nam, and we learned that the cold war could get pretty hot.
More importantly, students learned that they better have answers when Mr. Reggie called on them. Good answers. Or else. Mr. Reggie was a chauvinist and this was especially tough on us boys. If you were a boy and your answer was wrong he just cracked you with his wooden pointer right across the head. On a bad day you could be Rodney King. With my crewcut I could go to my next class and everyone knew from the welts on my head that I had missed three questions in world history. But I wore those welts like merit badges and never dreamed of calling a lawyer.
If the pointer wasn’t handy, Mr. Reggie would thump guys with his Purdue ring. I’m fairly certain that it was custom made and weighed approximately four pounds. While being cracked with the pointer stung, the Purdue ring thumping was like a minor concussion. He held our attention. If we weren’t fascinated by the subject matter, we were fascinated by the consequences of not being fascinated. It kept us focused. Keeping students focused is the hallmark of a great teacher.
When your answer was good but had room for improvement he hovered over you until you got it right. When your answer was just right, he challenged it anyway to see if you had the courage of your convictions. In this way, students were taught to be strong in the face of adversity.
If Mr. Reggie didn’t teach students to love history, he at least taught them to respect it. Most importantly, he gave us a sense of perspective. You see, Mr. Reggie was Lebanese by birthright and quite proud of his Middle Eastern heritage. We learned that history had many points of view and that we should do our best to understand all of them.
Mr. Reggie and I listened to the sales pitch by the Prentice Hall representative. Lots of high tech gadgetry and cutting edge technology. On-line textbooks with interactive videos. Almost overwhelming. When it was over, he leaned over and said, “I don’t know about all this crap, Joe. Where does the teacher come in?” Mr. Reggie always knew how to get to the heart of the argument.
I knew what he meant when he said that. In his class we never merely “interacted” with history. We bathed in it, lived it, felt its hot breath on our neck. And if we didn’t, we felt the crack of that stick on our heads.
Man, I loved that class!