Moments in History

by Bob Schoone-Jongen.

During September 1974 President Ford pardoned President Nixon of all the crimes he committed while in office. This ended two things: Nixon’s legal problems and Ford’s reelection hopes. Today we know two other things: Nixon died reviled; Ford died a profile in courage. History changes things. The Wall no longer divides Berlin, Mao Zedong lies under glass, cigarette smoke no longer belches from school faculty rooms, newspapers no longer need paper, computers fit in the palm of a hand, and transistor radios are museum exhibits. Cars are more efficient, microwave ovens ubiquitous; television screens are HD, and the BBC News arrives via internet instead of shortwave. Through it all, yours truly has been teaching, as the history book sprouted more chapters.

A lot has happened in 43 years. And much has changed, including me. Over those years there have been personal Pearl Harbors, events that marked sharp turns in the stream of time. There was Harold, who came from a troubled home and learned almost nothing historical during that first year—except one thing: the British forced the Chinese to import opium in the 1840s. Harold found that absolutely wrong, and he was right. But that day Harold taught me this: given enough time, I could help someone see the difference between justice and injustice. I could teach.

Another Pearl Harbor moment came decades later upon starting graduate school after years of being a high school teacher. Being twice as old as my fellow students, I knew far less than half of what they did about ideas and themes from French philosophers. Without those ideas I could only flail, while they discussed. Having been the sage of my old classroom for decades had come with a heavy price—ignorance. The world of ideas had moved; I hadn’t. I needed to learn.

But there have been Appomattox moments as well—watersheds when clearly one era ended and another began. Leaving Minnesota for Michigan fit the bill. Walking through that empty house where we’d lived for years, and two sons had grown and left—words failed, but not emotions. I would never pass that way again. A few days later a platoon of historians unloaded the furniture into another house—not quite a Pearl Harbor moment, but a change, nonetheless.

Another Appomattox approaches. After thousands of attempts to teach history the right way, I can stop trying to make the next class better than the last one, because the last one has arrived.  I end knowing I could have, should have been better. So, I am left with “pretty good” as the final evaluation, the best a Minnesota exile can hope for, I guess.  Divine intervention postponed this last class for two years. Two years ago, during a prolonged Pearl Harbor experience, I prayed for just one thing amid two heart operations separated by a month of pneumonia—to teach one more time. Then, I got greedy and seized a second one—this year.

The thing I have enjoyed the most as a teacher, and will likely miss the most, has been the chance to show this world’s Harolds that despite all the bad that engulfs us, good will win in the end. We are surrounded by glimpses of that good, when we look and listen for these glimmers of God. The night I prayed for another chance to teach, I heard one of those glints emanating from what is now a technological relic—my iPod Nano: Haydn’s Creation’s high point, “The Heavens Are Telling the Glory of God.” That’s what I wanted to teach. There is harmony. Things will end in a major key. All the voices and instruments will form a grand, final chord. It will be an Appomattox moment like no other.

I have been blessed to bob along in the swirling eddies of history’s current, with my head just far enough above the surface to get a glimpse of what is happening in the wake of what happened before. I have been honored to be heard by students as they eddied along with me for a few moments, before we parted ways—into the deep current, or toward the shore, or into the rapids.

There’s a river called Appomattox, more of a brook, actually. But its current and eddies contribute to something much larger, the Chesapeake Bay. I hold no illusions about my influence in the cosmic scheme of things. Some encounters left dents; others had no discernable effect. Sometimes they created lasting bonds and sometimes they split atoms, with the inevitable result. My hope is I have left more light than heat trailing behind.

Living with the past has been my joy, and my life. Appomattox moments surpass the Pearl Harbors. And the stream flows on. Lincoln and FDR have been my companions, alongside real estate agents, rogues, railroaders, baseball players, immigrants, Sir Thomas More, and a few doomed ships’ captains. We all jointly bobbed toward the Chesapeake for a few moments. I hope that there were times when the students saw in those moments the glimmer ahead glinting just a bit brighter. Thank God, I know I did.

Robert Schoone-Jongen is in his fourteenth year at Calvin College, working with student teachers who hope to become high school and middle school social studies teachers. His historical interests are immigration, American social history, and the presidency. 

3 thoughts on “Moments in History

  1. Simon Kaschner

    I remember sitting in your American History classes at Calvin. Your passion for history and for teaching was something visible and something almost palpable. One thing you said that stuck with me to this day – and which I try to practice as often as I can – is to make history local …show the kids that history happened right around the corner from where they live. And with a city like Frankfurt, there is a lot to show! Thank you for your humor, your legendary ties and for reassuring me that teaching history is EXACTLY what I want to do.


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