Mar. 12, 2002

The History Teacher

by Billy Collins

Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "The History Teacher," by Billy Collins from Questions About Angels (University of Pittsburgh Press).

The History Teacher

Trying to protect his students' innocence
he told them the Ice Age was really just
the Chilly Age, a period of a million years
when everyone had to wear sweaters.

And the Stone Age became the Gravel Age,
named after the long driveways of the time.

The Spanish Inquisition was nothing more
than an outbreak of questions such as
"How far is it from here to Madrid?"
"What do you call the matador's hat?"

The War of the Roses took place in a garden,
and the Enola Gay dropped one tiny atom
on Japan.

The children would leave his classroom
for the playground to torment the weak
and the smart,
mussing up their hair and breaking their glasses,

while he gathered up his notes and walked home
past flower beds and white picket fences,
wondering if they would believe that soldiers
in the Boer War told long, rambling stories
designed to make the enemy nod off.

It's the birthday of children's writer Virginia Hamilton, born in Yellow Springs, Ohio (1936). Her grandfather was a slave who fled to freedom on the Underground Railroad. Every year he would sit his ten children down and tell them the story of his escape. She wrote the first books for children in which the fact that their characters were African-American wasn't the most important thing about them. Her novel M.C. Higgins the Great won a Newbury Medal, and the National Book Award as well. In 1992 she was awarded the Hans Christian Anderson medal, the first time an American had won the prize in over a decade. She died on February 19, 2002.

It's the birthday of Beat novelist Jack Kerouac, born Jean-Louise Kerouac, in Lowell Massachusetts (1922). His family was French-Canadian, and his first language was joual, the working-class French of Quebec. He dropped out of Columbia and took a series of road trips with a lighthearted young man called Neal Cassady, carrying in his knapsack the manuscripts of novels he was working on, as well as a dizzying stock of pharmaceutical supplies. In 1950 he sat down at his kitchen table and typed the entire manuscript of On the Road onto a single roll of teletype paper, so that he wouldn't have to stop to put new sheets in. It took him three weeks. Six years later, it was published, and it made him a celebrity. He made many public appearances as a spokesman for the Beat generation, but he drank steadily, his work deteriorated, and his life began to unravel. He moved back home to live with his mother, and died at the age of forty-seven. The roll of teletype paper sold at auction last year for 2.4 million dollars.

It's the birthday of the philosopher and clergyman George Berkeley, born near Thomastown, Ireland, (1685). As a clergyman, he worried that the ideas of thinkers like Isaac Newton and John Locke were dangerously close to atheism. His arguments were so ingenious, and his conclusions were so arresting, that they sometimes had the effect of prodding his opponents to do better work in order to reply to him. His most surprising philosophical claim was that nothing exists outside the mind-that objects which seem real are nothing more than our perceptions of them. Once, when his contemporaries Samuel Johnson and James Boswell were out for a walk, Boswell told Johnson that although he thought Berkeley's idea was preposterous, he couldn't think of any way to refute it. Johnson stopped and kicked a big rock. "I refute it thus," he said.

It's the birthday of writer and antiquary John Aubrey, born in Kingston, England, (1626). He's best known for his Brief Lives, sketches he made to help a friend of his who was writing official biographies. He wrote about eminent Englishmen from Thomas Hobbes to William Shakespeare. His portraits include details about what his subjects liked to eat for breakfast, the texture of their skin, and their preference in hats.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
Current Faves - Learn more about poets featured frequently on the show