A Masterful History Lesson as Reported by Henry James Foster Wallace



Whenever anyone who discovers I’m a teacher starts in on the familiar refrain about how underpaid we are, I assure my well-meaning new acquaintance that some of us are not underpaid. For example, take my high school Spanish teacher, Senora Equis, that dour, unimaginative functionary. Her only lesson plan was punching play on a tape recorder and having us repeat parrot-like what we thought we heard. The voices on the recording were not quite human, too cheerful, the words overly annunciated, as if directed at a hard-of-hearing octogenarian in a nursing home located in Disney World.

I remember remarking to mis amiga Sharon Mallard that a trained chimp could replace Senora Equis and very little would be lost. Dress Cheetah in a poncho, have him knuckle his way into the room, hop on the metal desk, click play, and plop down as we intoned in unison, “Que lastima, lo siento” or “Tengo catarro” or “Las putas estan muy bonita” and you wouldn’t be losing a thing.


On the other hand, if you paid teachers according to how hard they worked, the difficulty of the task, and on the quality and worth of their product, my former colleague Natalie Herford should be making more money than Jadeveon Clowney.

Since I’d given up being Department Chair a couple of years ago, I decided it was high time to discard some of my unnecessary electronic files when I ran across a narrative of an observation I had made of one of Natalie’s history classes. She had been new to the school, and the word was out that she was spectacular. I asked her if she’d mind if I hopped on the train of colleagues who had sat in on one of her classes, and she, said, “Of course. I’d love to have you.”

Part of my duties as Department Chair was observing my colleagues. Rather than using the official form for observations, I wrote narratives of what I observed, trying the best I could to render the action from the objective point-of-view, as if I were video recorder. Let the teacher and principal decide for themselves what is effective and what is not.

Natalie was in the history department, in fact, its chair, so I was not required to document my observation. However, I told her I would compose one of my narratives and share it with her and Sarah, our principal, if she liked. This time, however, for my own amusement, I created a persona I called Henry James Foster Wallace to report what happened during the class.


Henry James Foster Wallace’s Observations of Mrs. Natalie Herford’s AP World History Class on 6 February 2009


When your Semi-Omniscient Narrator (henceforth SON) arrived at Room 204 a couple of minutes before class time, it surprised him to see the students sitting upright and engaged in a group conversation with Mrs. Herford who stood before them in the center of the room.   Glancing up at the so-called atomic clock, SON was relieved to see that, no, he wasn’t (at least officially) interrupting class.

Acknowledging his presence, Mrs. Herford in her somewhat patrician precisely annunciated, but indeterminate accent welcomed him to sit anywhere.   She added, “Feel free to participate as much as you like.” Demurring, SON bombastically announced that like the novelist Flaubert he would be invisible but omnipresent, hovering like a god. Mrs. Herford offered an indulgent smile at his pomposity and addressed him henceforth as “O Invisible God.” This incident, however silly, was the first instance of a pattern SON would later discern: Mrs. Herford adroitly picks up idiosyncratic comments in the class and later echoes them to create humorous motifs that provide a sort of dramatic structure to the proceedings. Her mental agility, her profound mastery of the subject matter, combined with a brilliant, almost ballerina-like ability to embody abstractions in physical movement, make Mrs. Herford an incredibly dynamic and effective teacher. [1]

Room 204 is a bright, orderly space with yellow dominating the color scheme. A black and white photograph of the three Camelot-era Kennedy brothers counterbalances on the opposite wall a reproduction of a WW2 poster of Churchill jabbing an index finger Uncle-Sam style. On the back wall hang two large maps of the Western and Eastern hemispheres. Most interesting, however, is a series of typed sayings on 8 1/2 x 11 white paper that create a sort of intellectual wainscoting running across three walls of the room. Alas, being only a semi-omniscient narrator, SON was able to make out the content of only one of these literary ornaments, a colloquial pugilistic quote from Marx about getting kicked and kicking back. The room’s arrangement, its tidiness, suggests that this is a serious place, a place of business.

Which it is. About 30 seconds before class was to start, Chad Livingston[2], looking a bit frazzled, hurried into class, and Mrs. Herford said, “And here is Chad arriving just in time not to be counted tardy,” which SON took to be a subtle corrective, a suggestion to Mr. Livingston that he should arrive earlier so that the show can get on the road promptly the instant the second hand of the atomic clock reaches its zenith denoting 8:10 A.M. Eastern Standard Time. As it happened, Mr. Livingston probably had been rummaging in his locker searching for some lost document, a précis or AP application perhaps[3], because Mrs. Herford asked if he had said document, and Mr. Livingston asked for another.   Amusedly disgruntled, Mrs. Herford chided, “This does not bode well, does it, Chad,” and he reversed field, grinning and saying that he was hadn’t lost whatever it was he couldn’t produce, a performance that your SON found unconvincing.

As Mr. Livingston took his seat, instruction commenced. Arranged in a rectangular “semicircle,” two-desks deep, the students maintained excellent posture through the next forty minutes, an impressive feat for high-achieving, over-involved scholars, athletes, and amateur thespians, especially so early on a frigid Friday morning. In fact, throughout the entire class, the students maintained an impressive level of attentiveness, and eight of the nine scholars contributed at some point to Mrs. Herford’s Socratic questioning. The one student who didn’t contribute, the ever-taciturn Pamela Blanton[4], sat directly in front of SON preventing his being able to gauge her level of attentiveness. However, Miss Blanton not only sits on the front row, but also sits closest to the stool upon which Mrs. Herford sometimes perches[5], so it seems extremely unlikely that the bashful Miss Blanton wasn’t mentally engaged in the academic content of the lesson. Throughout the class, on at least three occasions, Mrs. Herford referred to the students as “ladies and gentlemen,” appellations that corresponded aptly to their behavior.

Mrs. Herford began by providing a rough road map of what lay ahead, a revisitation of Russia in light of the previous night’s reading. Mrs. Herford began by asking the students what had been going on the last time they visited Russia. A chorus of contradictory responses rang out, with Hendrik Kohlman harkening back to the Mongols and Angela Nielson remembering something about the Ivan tsars. Mr. Kohlman, who is 15-going-on-65, speaks with such an oddly anachronistic formality that you wouldn’t be surprised to look over and see that he’s sporting knickers and an Eton collar. He immediately recognized his error, and complained, “It’s Friday morning.”

Then, with extraordinary dexterity, Mrs. Herford in a Socratic cross-examination elicited from the students a remarkable distillation of half-a-millennium of Russian history, taking us from Mongols and princes to tsars and serfdom. In forcing the students themselves to provide the correct answers, Mrs. Herford engages in an animated artform that combines ballet and charades. When she asks a question, her face is quizzical, as if she has momentarily forgotten the answer, and when a student comes up with the correct response, her face lights up. Students want to generate that smile, so they take intellectual risks in perhaps being wrong. If they are incorrect, Mrs. Herford asks qualifying questions. To coax the answers from them, she gracefully uses her hands, pushing her palms out towards the students to suggest exile, say, or interlacing her fingers to suggest the combining of forces. Because she’s perpetually in motion and the class is so small, students don’t have the luxury to wander off into the lurid klieg-lit rooms of their imaginations.

Once Mrs. Herford had navigated her students through the ages, from the steppes of the Mongols to the marshes of St. Petersburg, she began the central focus of the day, a demonstration of a succession of Russian rulers who in subsequent administrations oscillated from reformation to reaction, a rather disheartening pingponging between liberalization and repression. To capture visually this historical movement, Mrs. Herford drew a crossgraph on her white board with “reform” and “reaction” as the twin headings. As she was hurriedly constructing her graph, Mr. Kohlman announced that “this is a little off topic” but that he reckoned, somewhat egocentrically perhaps, that there might be a fortune to be made in manufacturing loose leaf paper with vertical rather than horizontal lines, paper that would be well-suited to accommodate the graph Mrs. Herford was creating. Showing a surprising ignorance of product creation and promotion, Stephen Paddington pooh-poohed this idea by saying that you would need special binders if you manufactured vertically lined paper. Some other unidentified voice reasonably suggested that you could in fact turn your binders sideways and accomplish Mr. Kohlman’s objective. Rather than launching into a side trip to enlighten Mr. Paddington about the nefarious practices of the Lords of Capitalism and how creating products that won’t accommodate older products’ plug-ins is one of their dastardly techniques[6], Mrs. Herford, perhaps thinking of the centuries and various cultures stretching before her in the three-and-a-half months before the AP exam, quickly shut down the conjecture by assuring Mr. Gadsden that indeed if there were a market for vertically lined paper, surely some enterprising entrepreneur would have created it by now. Later in the class Mr. Kohlman– who otherwise proved a valuable contributor to providing correct answers to Mrs. Herford’s questions – tried to interject another distraction, which Mrs. Herford ignored, as she talked through his interruption. She did, later on, say that she thought it was a good idea for students to copy the graph in the notebooks, “whether on paper vertically lined, or otherwise,’’ a deft allusion to Mr. Kohlman’s original observation.

As the ping pong ball bounced from tsar to tsar, from Nicholas I to Alexander II to Alexander III, Mrs. Herford scrawled information in the Reaction column or the Reform column, switching alternatively, depending on whether the adjacent rulers were purging dissenters or liberalizing education. Whether consciously or not, she was creating a visual Hegelian historical dialectic that was particularly apropos given that Marx stood waiting just outside the present scope of the day’s lesson. In addition, as Mrs. Herford discussed the concept of Russianization, she successfully encouraged students to synthesize other similar movements in different cultures they had studied such as Sinofication in China and the persecution of Huguenots under Louis XIV. As a side note, Mrs. Hereford’s arrangement of cross-referencing various cultures during similar times (the alternating method) rather than starting with medieval China and taking it to the 2Oth century and then going to India and doing likewise (the block method) mirrors these students’ most recent essay assignment in English, a comparison-and-contrast composition in which their instructors encourage them to use the alternating method rather than the block method.

With energy that never flagged, Mrs. Herford guided her charges to the very end, stating at 9:43 that she had two minutes, “and you know that I am going to use them.” She mentioned a précis that was due Monday and some pivotal, important question that she had hoped to ask today but that would have to wait until Tuesday. Her “marketing” of this question successfully spurred the interest of SON who would have liked to be there to discover what the mysterious question entailed and how the students might respond to it. Unfortunately, however, time was up, because another set of students was filing in for their turn to learn under this extraordinary teacher.

Natalie possesses the same quality that my very best teacher Dr. Jack Ashley possessed, the ability to make students want to please him, so they do their best, revising those essays, trying to make them even better so that the teacher will be proud of them.

And talking about a role model!

Mrs. Natalie Herdford

Mrs. Natalie Herdford

[1] Mrs. Herford’s command of Russian history is phenomenal. Without so much as a note, she effortlessly rattled dates, names, movements, etc.

[2] I have changed the students’ names.

[3] cf. the modifier of “omniscient” in the author’s acronymic nom de plume.

[4] For the sake of full disclosure, it should be noted that Miss Blanton is a far-distant cousin of the author’s.

[5] Actually, all told, Mrs. Herford spent ~ 8 seconds on that stool.

[6] As your SON would be tempted to do.

One thought on “A Masterful History Lesson as Reported by Henry James Foster Wallace

  1. Great one! Ten years or so at USC and Chasn Law as an adjunct were a breeze. However, I taught third grade at Seacoast Sunday School for 12 years and never could make those kids mind me.

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