History in the Making

Apocaplyptic Lady Liberty
Photo from Doug Cunningham’s Facebook Page

I’ve been grading student work. In fact, most people who teach on a traditional schedule have been working like crazy to finish up first-semester grades. I’m on terms for my institution, so we simply start over every 10 weeks, and I’m only grading milestone projects. They’re not memorable.

I think most of my teacher friends would agree that the majority of our grading isn’t memorable. Occasionally one person out of 81 students will write something that rings true. A bell chime from a Buddhist monastery. An angel receiving its wings.

One student paper that wouldn’t have been memorable took on significance in a changing context. Nearly more than a decade ago, a talented young man had just beautifully argued that terrorism would become the warfare of the future. As I was marking the A- on the top of his paper, my phone rang. “Turn on the TV.”

Click and I find the first tower billowing smoke. Within a few seconds, a massive object sweeps across the screen and explodes into the second tower. I’ve never forgotten that paper and, much the same as any cognizant American on September 11, 2011, I’ve never forgotten the images searing that moment into my identity. That was history, happening in front of my eyes.

Sometimes we know when history is being made. Sometimes we know events unfolding before us will become lore and eventually the content of student textbooks and the basis for more immemorable grading.

A factor that makes the American 9/11 stand apart from some other historical moments is the ubiquity of the images. With a limited number of channels and a 24-hour news cycle, we saw the same images repeating themselves: images that are iconic today. We all share memories of the same image, even if our contexts were different. I was standing in my living room. Recently, my students described how they were in elementary school classrooms watching TV. But we all know what that second explosion looked like.  And we cannot erase the haunting image of the man falling. We know the dust cloud chasing the people up the street.

As early as 1925, Maurice Halbwachs was writing, in French, about the idea of collective memory and the way that the images we see in the present influence our memory of the past. We find an effect from the group experience of these touchpoints in history, and they shape our memory of how we arrived at this moment.

Only a few years after 9/11, Alison Landsberg wrote a book about “prosthetic memories:” images, broadcast to us, that seem tangible to our minds and yet, in many ways, they are “inauthentic” because we don’t experience the events firsthand.  All of these images are mediated in some way for us. In the case of 9/11, the TV channels decided the angle, the duration, the commentary.

One of my favorite people to work with at the Air Force Academy, Professor Tom Vargish, taught me about contingent reality, that our present-day moment or personal reality is contingent upon the sum of personal experiences that brought us to this point. So many of us have shared experiences because of the nature of our increasingly connected, media-centric world where we personally witness a communal media event, and yet we never have identical experiences. Still, we can speak about this moment, the first day after the winter solstice of 2017, with a collective memory.

We knew history was happening on 9/11. How do we know when history is happening in more subtle ways? So many of my friends have felt the unrest of our present moment. We share the memory of hearing our nation’s leader say he assaults women as a regular practice: (“Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.”). We witnessed neo-Nazi protests end the life of a peaceful counter protestor in Charlottesville. We share the #metoo movement hanging out of balance with wave after wave of evidence that a systemic culture of assault and oppression exists in our country. Not just assault against women, but assault on most forms of decency. The tax bill moving out of Congress promises to increase the gap between the most wealthy and the most impoverished. Our supposed leaders cower before the threat of retaliation.

All of these “memories” belong to us, collectively, are being mediated for us through multiple sources, and are becoming the fabric of who we are. How do we know when history is being made?

Sometimes I fight this history, spooling out before me into an apocalyptic nightmare that is actually coming into existence, by creating my own memories, mediated through my own, tangible experience.  When I glide through a pine-beetle-devastated forest on too-little snow, sometimes I can set aside my fears about global warming and our future. Sometimes I strengthen the foundation of my contingent reality with crunchy snow steps, bounding dogs, and the tracks of rabbits disappearing into wood piles under the watchful eye of snow-capped mountains.

If only for a moment, I make my own history.

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