” Lest I should not be able to write again, I feel impelled to write a few lines that may fall under your eye when I’m no more. I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in, the cause in which I’m engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter.” – Sullivan Ballou, THE CIVIL WAR
The Civil War. Ken Burns tagged it as “It divided a country. It created a nation.” The acclaimed mini-series debuted in 1990. My accelerated 7th grade social studies class watched it in 1994. Even then I remember being blown away by Morgan Freemen’s voice. How could you not be. Although history is still one of my favorite subjects, I took away a lot more than Lee’s strategery and Grant’s fortunes from Ms. Engebretson’s Laser Disc (I do have to say I was against DVDs at first due to her class, we watched everything on Laser Disc).
I sat in the back, left-handed corner of the room. The row closest to the TV and furthest away from Ms. E. I was in the second to last seat. Alex was in the front desk. Tony was in the back. Elizabeth was closer to the door and pencil sharpener. The pencil sharpener was attached to the wall next to the door to the hallway. The trashcan was under the pencil sharpener. Shavings and kleenex filled the can.
Now, Ms. Engebretson was not a mean lady, nor was she a nice lady. She had a permanent scowl, but then if I had to teach horny, smart ass, privileged 12 and 13 year olds all day, I would as well. She was a fair teacher who cared about the curriculum. She would let you know if you were on point, or if you were lazy. I fooled her for the most part, but she still knew that I never applied all the aptitude that I could. She also knew, that I would apply my attention to history and especially history on Laser Disc. Side one. Apparently the cotton gin was a pimp machine.
The story began to unfold. My notebook was open. It began to fill with triangles and swirls and people and swords and squares and short-hand I developed that I never used. I would write down one word at a time. But in reality, when it came to test time, I would close my eyes and watch my personal picture show. Morgan Freemen filled out my essay questions for me. Is it cheating? I don’t know. I don’t really think so. My subconscious scribbling meant nothing to me as my focus and attention was on the 200 pound 27″ TV mounted in the corner of the room. Like tunnel vision and ears like a boom mic, I focused on the story.
My attention was drawn away somehow. I heard breathing. Weird, heavy breathing behind me. Why the hell would Tony be breathing like that. It’s a cotton gin. It makes cotton. It was a catalyst for the war. I know that slavery is upsetting, but, Jesus. Okay, maybe he just lost a loved one in the family and it was getting emotional for him. His family may have been tormented by white men, I don’t know. The episode drew to a close, Ms. E. turned the lights on and we engaged in conversation.
At lunch I was talking with Alex and Elizabeth and Eric and Sam. I told them that Tony was doing some weird breathing. They kind of dismissed it as bull shit and went back to talking about music. Liz always said that her band would kick my bands ass. I’m still ready to do battle.
The next day, the lights went out. Ms. Engebretson put in side two of the Laser Disc and the battles were getting bloodier. My notebook was getting messier and the breathing returned. Ten minutes into the episode I was drawn out of my trance from the breathing. I looked over my shoulder, as a pitcher would hold on a runner. I saw confusing movement accompanied with breathing. I turned back to the television and thought a moment. I looked at Liz across the room. Asleep. Eric, dazed. Sam, confused. Alex, her back was to me.
I told them at lunch time again. Still nobody believed me. They said I was being gross and returned to talking about music. Your band will not kick my band’s ass. Nirvana is is king and will never go away. STP is a Pearl Jam cover band. Billy Corgan’s a dick. Finally, I got a little curiosity out of the group and a peaked interest.
Next disc. Forever Free. Things aren’t going so well for Lincoln and the Union. Loss after loss. Death after Death. Retreat after Retreat. Tony became upset again. I checked the runner. I returned to the TV. Glanced at Liz. Bright eyed. I caught her eye and we agreed. Alex broke her pencil. She got up to sharpen it. Along the way she caught Liz’s eye. She sharpened her pencil and when returning belted out, “Oh, my god! He’s unzipped!”
I stood up and walked to the front of the room. Tony flushed and sat as nothing happened. My horror and fright were nothing to what had to be going through Tony’s heads. 7th grade, accelerated social studies. The Civil War. A cotton gin. A perverted grin. A compulsion to never have anyone behind me. Tony didn’t come back to school the next day. Or the next day. I never saw him again. I hope to hell he’s taking the war on terror a lot better than the civil war.
Please to enjoy.