Subtotal Recall

Of all the things I might remember about fifth grade — that would be age 11 plus-minus — why does the state-mandated Arkansas history semester stay in my noggin? Before today, I thought it was because this was the first and last time I cheated on a test.

Arkansas map showing county boundaries
Here’s your test, class: write the name of each county of Arkansas, and the county seats, so that teacher can read it!
Credit Wikimedia Commons

Not because I needed to. The smart kid getting away with murder, well cheating, would be revenge on what I took to be a lazy teacher. Yes, that’s me at 11, some 51 years ago, thinking like that.

Besides going through the textbook, Mrs. Floyd had us memorize the names of all 75 counties and their county seats. Now what practical good is that? It’s not even conceptually pedagogical, when you could be tested on crops or ores or prehistory or famous authors or the stars on the flag.

My memory, for normal uses of recall, remains good. But rote memorization scared me then (and makes me squirm now). That weakness also was part of my anger, worried I would not be able to ace the test.

For days I stuck a playing card on the clipboard I liked to write on, splaying it across the tabs on either side of the clip. On the day of the test, the card had taped to it a scrap of paper where itty bitty I wrote out the counties and their seats.

I wasn’t caught. I didn’t feel good about this afterward, nor did I regret it. My friends never knew, probably.

In today’s Sunday editions of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, though, journalist Bill Bowden reports that the Arkansas history textbooks used through the 1960s were not merely pro-Confederacy on that aspect of the state’s story but pro Ku Klux Klan, “Arkansas History Books Carried Rebel Slant — Lessons Reflected Lost Cause Views.”

My friend’s detailed article has plenty of quotes from the handful of authorized textbooks. None rang a bell at least directly, but something clicked this morning. Back then, I read the local and Little Rock dailies and the weekly magazines my parents subscribed to. Yet I still was a young child in 1968 or ’69. Maybe this state history claptrap did not sit right, causing something to lock in my cranium.

“The Klansmen told the Negroes to be good and to stay away from the polls on election days. Negroes who refused to obey were visited a second time and taken out and whipped.”

Our Arkansas, published in 1958 by Walter L. Brown, reported by Bowden

A Democrat-Gazette photograph shows four of the hardback books. Their cloth covers (no dust jackets) are red, green or orange. I remember though our state history was dark blue. I might be mistaken.

I wish I could claim prescience on the factual presentation or my perception of cultural evil. Nah. I’m nearly over the hill here in 2020 and still must work to increase my empathy and understanding of people and peoples.

It’s just odd that I remember sitting in that near-basement classroom of Mrs. Floyd in Ballman Elementary School, toward the right and toward the front. Half my friends were there, and the other half in the other fifth-grade class, that of Mrs. Gossett. Mrs. Floyd was prim and not quite young, Mrs. Gossett older with gray curls and a little sloppy. There are Mark, Dana, Richard, Keith, Kevin, Jim, Cici, Gae Von, Ann, Cindy and so on. I was the last picked for kickball teams at recess, so Mark and I read outside when we could get by with it. I recall no anecdotes about the reading and math we were taught, nor the topic of the other semester that preceded state history.

Maybe though we slogged through Arkansas history in the fall.

Coda: In 2015-16, I worked as a substitute teacher for Fayetteville and suburban Farmington public schools. At one middle school one day, the history teacher’s lesson plan had me help the students go through a section on Reconstruction.

This was only a couple of pages. As we started I saw the components on why Reconstruction failed were wrong factually. There wasn’t time for me to Google on my cell phone enough facts to put this in perspective for the students. And should a sub do that, ethically? All I could do was tell each class how complicated that period was and encourage them to look the topic up after school for the full story.

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