His wife sent him to the store on a bright Sunday afternoon in November to buy a can of “Spicy Corn”, which, as he understood it, was just corn with peppers that she intended to use in the chili she was making for dinner. She’d been given the recipe by a friend who’d won a local chili contest and swore it was due to the corn. Football was on, but he hadn’t really watched for years after being turned off by the constant domestic violence and aggravated assault charges the players seemed to collect, and he was just basically putzing around, so he didn’t mind. Slow drive on a sunny day through the sleepy town sounded like a thing.
He loitered in the bakery section of the store for a bit just ‘cause he felt like it, and picked up a box of cupcakes, all brightly frosted in oranges and yellows and reds to mimic the Autumn colors. Kids would love it, he thought, unaware that his wife was already working on cherry turnovers. She always got annoyed when he did something dinner-wise without checking, and as it happened he’d end up eating most of the cupcakes himself in a day or two after they’d gone stale. But at that moment, he thought he was doing a good thing.
He’d rounded the corner into the canned vegetables aisle when he saw him: his old high school American history teacher. He slowed, checking up and down to assure himself it was him, and it was, what, twenty years older now? He had to add up the years. The teacher had been a robust guy, but the skin sagged, and he stooped a little – seemed to be trying to decipher the label on a can of something as he held a can of something else in his other hand. Memories came flooding back; this had been one of the cool teachers, always with a story to tell, always laid back and empathetic. This was the teacher, he believed, who had instilled in him a love of history. He’d minored in it in college and still avidly read histories and biographies. He remembered how wise the teacher had seemed; how he could recite details and knew trivia that brought history alive and made it an adventure. He’d always felt a bit in awe of the man.
Turned out, though, that about ninety percent of what he’d been taught by him was wrong.
He’d had to completely relearn everything once he got to college. Facts and especially context the teacher had utterly misconstrued; why the electoral college came about, the nature of conflict with native peoples, the premise of the Confederacy and the Civil War, why Prohibition failed, why we went into Vietnam. On and on. Worse, he knew friends from high school who still took everything the teacher had said as gospel, trapped in the old fables. Yeah, he still respected the guy and remembered him fondly, but, c’mon, as a knowledge base it was crap!
Should he say ‘hello’? The teacher noticed him gaping at him but didn’t offer a sign of recognition, looking instead back at the label. Then eye contact again with a bit of a frown, waiting for him to say something. “Hi,” he blurted out and called his teacher by name and said how good it was to see him. “I had American history classes with you in high school” he said and told him the years.
The teacher still offered no recognition, looked a little vacant as though searching through years that blurred before him. “It’s good to see you again,” he said finally with a slight hint of pleasantry if still not the least bit of familiarity. “I don’t think much about those days; it was long ago.”
Pretty much the end of the conversation.
Later that night, after the kids had gone to bed and he was trying hard to digest the corn in the chili, he thought at length about the old teacher. Did he know, now, how flawed his lessons had been? Did the phrase “long ago” apply to the years or to vastly evolved perspectives now becoming more a matter of common knowledge? Did he not “think much about those days” because he saw his life’s purpose as having been fundamentally flawed? Or did he believe those evolutions were lies and resent their implications?
His old teacher was himself, he decided, a victim, spoon fed a mixture of prejudices and superstitions that had been passed along as legitimate history for generations. A kind of systemic insanity wherein history merely rationalized the reigning status quo until it unraveled. It always seemed, eventually, to unravel. And he wondered, despite feeling a bit superior, if he himself were somehow insane.
All my life I have had to learn to do things differently. To see the world differently.