Friday, 29 March 2013

History Lesson

My knowledge of American history is assembled piecemeal from a wall full of books about pre-Colombian Mexican pot sherds, watching The Rockford Files and The Waltons, the recorded oeuvre of Ice Cube, and reading Mad magazine when I was a kid - well, not so much Mad magazine itself as the paperback collections with which Ballantine Books generously flooded English book stores in the 1970s. Surprisingly this means that my knowledge of American history has turned out to be marginally more comprehensive than that of my wife who was born here. Mad taught me about Millard Fillmore, Mr. Clean, Jack Paar, and how a reluctantly dieting Teddy Roosevelt once asked his niece to sneak into the kitchen, speak softly, and carry a big sticky, gooey sundae back before anyone found out. In her defence, my wife knows more English history than anyone I've met. If ever I need to know anything about King Shakespeare or that guy who burned a cake and caused the great plague, I just ask Bess. In this respect - and not only in this respect I hasten to add - we complement each other.

The sum of our American historical knowledge was expanded this morning when Junior portrayed Daniel Boone in a short pageant put on by the third graders of his school. There were seventeen of them in all, each dressed as a character of his own choosing, each delivering a short speech explaining who they were supposed to be and why they were famous. This was a yearly presentation which had previously taken the form of living waxworks. The children would stand still, delivering their speech each time a fake button was pressed, but that version was apparently abused by older boys who would press one child's notional button over and over in order to see if they could make the kid explode. The non-interactive revision was itself surprisingly entertaining, and I don't feel that we've missed out.

So for fifteen minutes we were treated to a parade of nine-year old boys wearing stick-on moustaches, false mutton chops, and the obligatory stovepipe hat for Abe Lincoln, and for the first time at that school I felt that I was watching something which the performers actually enjoyed. Previous and lengthier occasions have featured selections of seasonal songs and the sort of scripted jollity I recall hating when I was a kid, mostly delivered with faces suggesting  performers enduring the same discomfort I'd felt at their age; and worse, all of this punctuated with the self-aggrandising, simpering oratory of a Principal who probably imagines himself melting hearts with the homogenised warmth of his testimony. Today he managed to keep it short, just a few words about the performance and how he too knew the agony of stage fright, before apparently remembering we were there to see our children rather than him.

Of those historical figures brought vividly to life before our very eyes as though by the agency of an actual working time machine, the stand-outs for me were Junior's Daniel Boone, George Washington, Sitting Bull, an extremely cute Wright brother, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Walt Disney and a kid who could have been either Neil Armstrong or Steve Albini - renowned singer and guitarist of both Big Black and Shellac - but who was almost certainly Neil Armstrong now that I've got that admittedly thin observational joke out of my system. There were others, but mostly faces from stretches of American history with which I am entirely unfamiliar, a couple of renowned baseball players for example. I personally would have appreciated an Oliver Hardy and a Nixon just for the hell of it, but it was impossible to fault the choices made, not least because they had been made and enacted with such infectious enthusiasm.

American history is a fascinating animal - chock full of screw-ups and moments for which there will never be an apology of sufficient strength, just in case anyone is so stupid as to think I might not be aware of that, and there's usually at least one - but we're hardly unique in that respect, and whatever the small print may have been, the culture at least makes the effort to put on a brave face, to give an impression of looking forward. American history, or more properly, the American history of the last few hundred years, is in part a story of triumph over adversity and people motivated largely by altruism, and even if the precise details are to be doubted as Disneyesque sentiment, the overall impression remains a positive one, even to someone so prone to cynicism as myself.

Rightly or wrongly, this was what I got from watching a bunch of nine year old boys grinning and chuckling to each other in false moustaches and 1930s trousers. If there's anything that distinguishes America from England it is, in my experience, that over here, what you see is what you usually get; which I believe is why, quite incidentally, it is not unknown for American culture to be described as crass in some cases, usually because it's exactly the same deal as English culture, just lacking the veneer of bullshit. It's probably no coincidence that those most suspect of American institutions tend to aspire to some nebulously European neo-classical ideal inherited from Washington's era when perhaps it meant something more than just a more effective means to sell used cars.

I'm not even sure what I learned today, but considering that it was taught by a bunch of kids who probably would have picked that Gangnam Style bloke or Pikachu as historically significant had  twenty-first century names been an option; and that it was taught in the halls of an institution with all the soul of a debt collection agency and yet which has somehow mistaken itself for Harvard; and that Bess and I walked back to the car with big wide eyes all afroth with joy and fuzzy stuff, I'd say it was probably something important. Anything that stops me sneering for an entire fifteen minutes can't be entirely without value.

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