Episode 1: Learning from the Past to Live in the Present

  • Upper School
 

Overview

Our inaugural episode of Bear Conversations features Upper School United States History teacher Laura Wilson. She reflects on the role of individual stories, how she makes history become relevant and alive to our students, and what history can teach us about our relationship with God and how we act in the world today.

About Laura Wilson

Laura recording with Patrick

Laura began teaching at Bear Creek in 2017, having previously taught at a classical Christian school in Hawaii. She loves the “so what” questions that come up in history classes and will talk about historical memory and competing narratives for as long as you're willing to listen. Mostly, she loves the chance to connect with students about their own histories and the ways in which their stories inform their present. Laura would like to let Ken Burns know that he is always welcome to come visit her classroom. When not teaching history or running lines with drama students, Laura spends time with her family down in Oregon, with her cat when he condescends to make an appearance, and with a barbell, trying desperately to pick it off the ground and not look stupid.

Resources

During her conversation with Patrick, Laura mentions some pieces of history and literature that you may be interested in investigating further.

Episode Transcript

Patrick: Welcome to Bear Conversations, a podcast of The Bear Creek School in Redmond, Washington. I'm Patrick Carruth, Bear Creek's president and headmaster, for nearly 15 years. In today's episode, I'm talking with Upper School history teacher Laura Wilson about her journey to Bear Creek and how teaching at a Christian liberal arts school shapes discussion and learning in her classroom.

Thanks for taking the time to join me today.

Laura: Yes, of course. This is a very inaugural kind of experience. And I feel very privileged to be here.

Patrick: Well, it is our first one.

Laura: I feel that I'm part of history. As a history teacher, my greatest dream is to be part of something historical. Yeah, that's my dream.

Patrick: Well, thanks, Laura. Maybe you could tell folks how you came to Bear Creek. Kind of explain to us what drew you to The Bear Creek School. I know that you started actually in a different part of Bear Creek in admissions. So tell us a little bit about what drew you to Bear Creek.

Laura: It's really how I experienced education myself, and that influenced then my decisions about my career in education and what I wanted that to look like.

So I went to a very small, classical Christian high school. I graduated with eleven people total in the graduating class, and we wore Dennis uniforms. We took
Latin classes. We had integrated humanities, and I loved it. I had been previously homeschooled and I loved the interplay of my peers and my teachers as these sort of guides through this educational process and people who would open doors to topics or discussions that I had never really considered before.

So after college, I knew I wanted to pursue a career in education, and I taught for four years at a private classical Christian school in Hawaii. But I'd been teaching every grade of history in the high school. So one class I'd be teaching ancient Greece and Rome. They would leave the classroom the next group, and I was suddenly teaching medieval Europe. And then they would leave, and then it was time for the Civil War. Right?

So I loved the opportunity at Bear Creek to really do a deep dive in American history. There's a lot of really compelling discussions in there. I think freedom is such an important idea in the American mythology and the American origin story and our continuing narrative. And so we talk about that a lot.

My classes have been discussing the presidency of Andrew Jackson who many historians would discuss as being in an incredibly pivotal president. He represents a big transition to more participation in the democratic process by more people. But at the same time, he's associated with some pretty overtly heinous actions in history, including the Indian Removal Act.

So we had a little debate because the current policy stands that he's going to be booted off the 20 dollar bill and replaced. And so we were talking, we had a little debate in class about should he be kicked off. How do we reflect back on these figures? And then sort of secondarily to that, who do we choose to represent us?

Patrick: And why?

Laura: And why. Most of the students were very excited by his replacement because he's getting replaced by Harriet Tubman. So everybody was like, "Oh yeah, that makes sense." But I think that first discussion of how do we even begin to evaluate this person who in many ways represents tremendous progress and in other ways embraced things and ideas and especially opinions on people of other races that are reprehensible. And so I found that I've really loved that moment every year that we get to it, that Andrew Jackson moment, because it prompts such good discussions with students.

I love the wars. Everybody loves the wars. But I think because there's lots of drama and I love anything that allows students to have an embodied experience with the past. So my master's is in public history. So really, more in the museum space about how do you get the general public to connect to the past? You might have to get creative because most of them aren't going to sit down and read a textbook in their spare time. They're going to watch Hamilton. They're going to go to a museum, they're going to go to a battlefield. I think there's real power in historical imagination, and those things turn that imagination on in ways that sometimes a book can't. Or maybe a novel based on history is going to be more compelling. And sometimes historians get a little protective, they go well, the public's being misled because they're not getting the whole picture, but there's such power in those imaginative moments. So I love those those elements where we can kind of embody some of that.

Battle of Bunker Hill reenactment

Bear Creek Battle of Bunker Hill Reenactment

So I have my students do a little battle reenactment of the Battle of Bunker Hill every year.

Patrick: I think I've seen this battle.

Laura: Yeah, it's very realistic. There's water balloons, which is definitely part of the original battle. But you know, they break out the drum and the fife and they charge up the hill. And there's this sort of energy behind that exploration of that conflict and what that goes into.

I think, the other piece that I've really enjoyed that's not necessarily a topic in history is I have my students do what we can an oral history project. So this is the public history side of my brain that just wants kids to see what history is and how history comes to be. In addition to learning the names and the dates. And so they, we work through a project where they interview a family member or a friend or even a stranger who is several generations removed from them. And they just talk about their story. They're basically doing what we do now. They sit down and have a recorded conversation. They transcribe that conversation and then they reflect on it.

And it's led to some really awesome moments where students get to sit down and understand that a lot of history is memory. And memory can be a little bit of a tricky thing. And there's formal history and informal history. So their starting point is probably going to be very informal. It's going to be hearing stories from people in their family and that those have value and dignity. And even if they're not about, I was there when JFK was assassinated, that they can really reveal the human experience. They can help us better understand who we are and then who God is. And I've gotten the privilege then of reading those transcripts of those interviews. And some of them, they ended up having a three hour long conversation and they got to hear about their family history or the history of somebody that they'd never spoken to. So I think those elements really just resonate with me.

Patrick: You must like story as well. I hear a lot of the narrative being an important part of understanding.

Laura: Absolutely. Really, I think, you know, history, there's levels. I feel like in elementary school we're often given individuals to read about and learn about. And those become sort of the representatives of that historical moment. In high school, because our goal is to expose students to a more a thorough understanding of cause and effect we often focus a lot on big, long narratives and less on individual narratives. But it's interesting because then you go into college and beyond and you sort of go back to those stories because you now understand the big picture and it's a question of, "Hey, what is the role of this individual person?" And I see history as so much the stories of individuals and the stories of nations and national identity. I love studies of historical memory. So how are things remembered? Because I think there's something beautifully human about that, right?

So one of my research topics in grad school was World War I. I was in the UK, so it was particularly unique because there's such a different memory of World War I in the UK than there is in the U.S.

Patrick: Oh interesting. Like how? Give me any example. That's neat.

Laura: Well, the U.S. entered quite late. We were there for a very short amount of time, and none of the battles happened on our soil. So and there were so many other really momentous changes and shifts happening. At the same time, you have the women's suffrage movement coming to head. You have a renewal of the civil rights movement. You have a lot of labor activism. And so the war itself was not really the kind of dominant narrative.

Whereas in England, there were there was such a catastrophic impact on the landscape, even though, you know, even more so in France or in Belgium or in Germany. But, you know, to have every small village you drive through has a World War I memorial, because World War I was memorialized almost immediately. They didn't even wait. It was like, "oh, the war is over, put a monument up." Because of the impact where an entire village's population of young men would just get wiped out. So to study then, the way that the memory of that war has continued to be carried by people.

I worked with a museum to do an exhibit on the Battle of the Somme because I was there for the centennial of World War I. So every time we would hit that kind of point in the calendar, it was like "Okay, what are we remembering in the Somme?" The Battle the Somme is one of the most devastating battles in World War I. And I was helping to memorialize that through the a painting that the museum had that was done by a local man. And he was a prolific photographer and painter. He was in his forties and basically lied in order to get into the army because he wanted to go fight. And he was old and they're like, "Yeah, you're out of shape." But he kind of wormed his way in.

Patrick: He was 40 and he was old?

Laura: Yeah, well, yeah. I mean, and I think anybody's too old to go off to war, which is, you know. So he painted this depiction Depiction of the Battle of the Somme. And in addition to that had left just piles and piles of photographs. He met Teddy Roosevelt on safari in Africa.

Patrick: Which is, of course, where you'd meet Teddy Roosevelt.

Laura: The only place you'd meet Teddy Roosevelt. He photographed the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk. So it was all this collection of stuff in somebody's house, out in the countryside. So me and another museum curator drove out past the sheep and went to his granddaughter's house. She was in her seventies. And she's like, "I don't know, I have all this stuff, but I think this is important."

And it was so beautiful to be able to through the process of unpacking the legacy and the memory of the Battle of the Somme to then give back the story of her grandfather or great grandfather back to her and her family. And her family attended the opening. And I was able to just give them a little spiel on this person that they all knew about but hadn't really connected to because he was no longer with them. And that, I think, was actually the moment at that where, I was in grad school I had considered basically a career shift. So I taught for four years, then I was like, I love museums. I love this experiential piece of interacting with the past. I think maybe I want to just work in museums. So as part of my program I did this exhibit. And I did all the research. You know, you go out and go through dusty objects. You put them together, you type up the really heavy research that you did. And yet, the most meaningful part to me was when I got to sit in that small room with that small group of family members and give them back a story that they didn't know already and connect them to a person and feelings about a period. And that it was the next day that thought came back of, "No, I think I'm a teacher. I don't think my role is necessarily to sit and do the research." There's people who are immensely talented at that and find so much joy and fulfillment in that. And for me, it was the connection with the audience or the learners. Who can I kind of bring into this final product and help to connect with?

Patrick: I find it's really interesting to hear you talk about connecting the narrative to humanity. You've said several times how history in the narrative helps us to connect back to being human, and in that moment, it sounds like you were. That's exactly what you did, right? You helped restore the story to give that humanity back.

Laura: And that was that was really powerful and impactful, and within a few months I was done with my program and looking for jobs and looking at schools. And looking specifically for schools in the northwest, which is where I found Bear Creek, which then lined up with the sort of previous experiences that had had of just the profound impact that a liberal arts approach and a Christian liberal arts approach to education could bring. So to me, finding a place with all of those elements was incredibly hard. There are quite a few options around the country. I wanted to be in the northwest and this was one of the few options in this region that I believed would embody that, that holistic pursuit of wisdom and truth but also a deep love for humanity.

One of my sort of favorite observations is from my liberal arts education back in college is that we read Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. I actually had to read it twice in one year, which I thought, "That's unfair!" But they did not listen to me, so I read it twice. And the beautiful observations from that book is Dostoevsky says, you know, that beauty can heal the world, is one of his observations, but that the other is that memory is incredibly redemptive. And that, of course, it's a story about murder and a lot of failure in relationship. But Alyosha, one of the characters at the end says, you know, memory it's like this little pinprick of light that can guide you out of the darkness. So you might be embroiled in certain despondent beliefs about how the world is or how people are or the fact that people never change and there's no options other than the raw deal you've been dealt. And yet, God gives us these memories, these anchors of faithfulness and provision and goodness and love that can drag us out of that darkness. And I see that over and over, that in history, in the study of history. I think in the study of literature, because in my experience, I always studied them together, I didn't separate them out. But in the narratives that authors have created about the human experience and then the real narratives that we can capture from history, I think we see that amazing ability of understanding the story that we're in and looking for those redemptive momements. Not in a cliché way like, it all ends up great, but to actively look for redemption because we know that's the narrative of the world, right? That's who God is. He's the God of redemption.

Patrick: I think that's interesting how you talk about history in the story and memory being the way that we kind of see beyond just where we are in that moment. And of course, you know, the Old Testament is just full of that, of remember, remember, remember. And then calls to remember, and then forgetting.

Laura: Which is important because there's, you know, a little bit about our human condition. If you just count how often God's like, remember, hey remember? Put up a rock, like a giant rock because you're going to forget this.

And to not, like the Andrew Jackson experience, I never want to tell kids, "Oh, well, you know, he was in the past. Like he didn't really know. He wasn't enlightened." So there's this sense of you can redeem the past without excusing sin. You can understand that there could be long term ramifications for actions. That injustice can be very measurable and it can be continuous, and that it can be something that it is incredibly virtuous to fight against. And not just be like, "Well, that's you know, I guess I just have to redeem it in my memory." So I don't want to divorce that from the kind of energy that I think a lot of high school students have to engage with their world. But to remind them that the things in the past that really are troubling or discouraging are still part of a redemptive story. And so without dismissing them, how can we dignify the people who were involved? And how can we dignify the people who were involved? And how can we help that to shape our own understanding of the kind of call that God puts on our lives to act in mercy and love and to really pursue justice in the world that we currently exist in?

And that's one of the things I love about teaching juniors. So I teach all the juniors it's been one of the privileges of working here is that I get them all whether they like it or not. And that I get to see them at this moment where they're so observant of the world around them on a really pretty detailed level. And they can start to ask really significant questions about who they are. Even things like memory, right? Are we are we remembering this part of our history correctly? Is there maybe a disconnect between how this episode has been remembered in the past and how maybe it should be? Because that's certainly a big part of what we talk about, that the way in which, you know, even history has a history.

And so unpacking how people intentionally might have shaped certain narratives might impact how we view them today. So there there's a lot of analysis there of their own situation, their own context that poises them, I think, to ask really good questions. And honestly to consistently challenge my own thinking and my own perception of what, even like my own, the stories that I gravitate towards because even they're going to pick up new ones. And, you know, a lot of them have seen Hamilton, which is just the greatest gift to history teachers. But now I go, Oh yes, Hamilton's financial plan that used to just make everyone sleep.

Patrick: How's it going now?

Laura: Oh, it's great. They just all start. They go, "Oh, can we talk about the cabinet battle between Hamilton and Jefferson?" Oh, yeah, sure let's do that. So there's some really fun, I think, historical imagination that they still possess. But I've appreciated that about teaching high schoolers is that there's that, I think, still the challenge of saying, here are people with a tremendous amount of energy. They may tend to see things as too all or nothing or is too like it's either this or this. And I can help them develop some understanding of context and cause and effect, but that they're an individual uniquely equipped by God to serve out a wonderful purpose. And what I want to do is consistently point them back to their creator and point them back to the ways in which their skills and or abilities reflect who they were created by, and actually then sort of stand as a calling for them to step into something bigger than just their own immediate preferences.

Patrick: I like that your references to Jackson and to Harriet Tubman. I mean, all that stuff right now, racial justice, that's very, very relevant and all on the kids minds. And for you to be able to show them what the scripture says about our humanity, both our image bearingness, so we can do some great things, and maybe, you know, he did. And we are capable of lots of really not great things as human beings to be able to see that.

A couple more questions. And then I think we're probably begin to wrap up. You mentioned that history sometimes helps you to show kids or equip them with the ought. Like, we know what it can be done, but should be done? Talk a little bit about that. How does history do that?

Laura: The questions of who defines justice? With the Andrew Jackson example, when we had our discussion, a lot of the students kind of immediately gravitated toward this perspective that said, "Well, how much can we really come down on Andrew Jackson because he lived in a different time?" And, you know, without giving them a hard time for that, I wanted to push them and say, "Well, then how and when do we determine what is good or bad, right? Like, and that's a really deep pool to jump into. So there's that kind of conversation that can so easily happen I think in those discussions.

We're going to read Frederick Douglass' speech titled "What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?", which is a really powerful meditation on different experiences within American history. And Douglass, who has a deep, foundational belief in the goodness of God to say there is something disconnected here between what I'm being told, which is that God is love and that these Christian people love me and the fact that they're continuing to allow slavery to exist, which I know that God hates the oppression of his people and his people in this case are these mostly believing people who are enslaved. So I think there's those kinds of questions about, how do we grapple with that kind of memory that we own as a country? But also sort of the ought questions can be even just about, you know, it doesn't always have to be about like what is ultimately true? It can be, you know, what is the best way to respond to somebody who deeply disagrees with us without saying, well, there's, I guess there's not really a truth, so I can agree that what you think is what you think.

Patrick: Right. And my truth is my truth and yours is yours.

Laura: And my truth is my truth. And to say, though, there's grounds for disagreement, but how do we engage with that? Because we have plenty of examples of how not to in our own history, and I think there can be some helpfulness in showing them that. That it's not just the current day and age where we've struggled to know how we ought to engage with other humans. That that is actually a really consistent theme. And there are certain unique factors that maybe exacerbate parts of it, but that it's not something to despair over as in, you guys, there's something broken about the world right now that is unfixable. But that it is a part of fallen humanity, and we can actively work to think how we can can work through that.

Patrick: That's right. It's always been broken, and part of our mission is to be redemptive in that space.

Laura: Yes, absolutely.

Patrick: Well, Laura, this has been a lot of fun. Thank you so much for joining me on the inaugural Bear Conversations. It is great to see you.

Laura: Thank you for having me and listening to me talk about Andrew Jackson a lot. Now you know what my students go through.

Patrick: Yeah. Absolutely.

Laura: I appreciate it.

Patrick: Thank you, Laura.

Thank you for listening to Bear Conversations, a podcast of The Bear Creek School. Join me next month for another conversation with our Bear Creek faculty and subscribe to or follow our podcast to automatically receive the next episode. You can find the show notes from this episode on our website at tbcs.org/podcast.