Awhile back, I got the opportunity to speak to my son’s school in a general assembly of students ranging from the 7th to 11th grades to talk about my novel recently published based on my own family’s stories about the Salem witch trials of 1692. As I looked across the mostly pained, blank, or already bored faces, I suddenly remembered something I had forgotten for many years. I recalled my 10th grade European history teacher who, on the first day of class, ordered all of us to pass our text books to the front row of desks. They were typical, weighty tomes, mostly about dead white people and, as it was the late 1960’s, we felt a moral obligation to sit in sneering condemnation, expecting a rehash of everything we had learned in lower school.
To our surprise, our instructor, Mr. Bentley, threw a few of the textbooks in the trash barrel, telling us that if we wanted a dry recitation of facts and figures we should transfer to 6th period math. His first assignment was to read The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey. He then proceeded to take us through the rigors and, to our delight, the horrors of the black plague of Europe in the 14th century. We did end up, in spite of ourselves, memorizing the seminal dates of history: the Norman Invasion of 1066, the Magna Carta in 1215, etc. But for the first time, history was a marvelous, dark, and rancorous stew of human emotions and desires. People long dead were motivated by the same sparks of passion or apathy, which afflicted all of us; and, except for the funny costumes, would be as easily recognized as our own peers.
Standing in front of 150 teenaged kids, I remembered, thanks to Mr. Bentley, that they could care less about the places and dates–they wanted to know about the people. So I told them about the ultimate “mean girls” who sent 19 innocent men and women to the hangman, and one man to be crushed under a weight of stone. I asked for a volunteer and piled books on top of him until he screamed “uncle.” I asked for another volunteer and recreated that favorite Puritan torture method called “the bow,” where the victim is tied face-down, hands behind the back, a noose tied neck to ankles. It only took to minutes to get him to confess he was a witch, and the kids loved it. I had their attention and then I could tell them about how courageous, how utterly singular, it had been for those brave few to stand up in front of an entire community and cleave to the truth, knowing it would bring imprisonment, torture, and death.