On the first day of school students would wander into my homeroom and sit, some in front and some in back. They didn’t know me and I didn’t know them. Some greeted me. Others didn’t. I’d look at each one and if I got eye contact I’d say, “Good morning,” and he or she would respond in kind. By eight o’clock all the busses would had arrived. Announcements would come over the intercom. When the Pledge of Allegiance was over they all sat down I’d walk to the front of the class, fold my arms over my chest and look them over. Every one would be staring back at me wide-eyed and expectant. I’d scratch my chin, knit my brow, then slowly shake my head saying, “Why? Why do they always give me the ugly ones?”
In shock, their eyes would grow wider. Girls would turn to each other with hands over their open mouths. After a few seconds a boy would laugh - and it was always a boy. Then other boys would laugh. After a few more seconds, they all knew I wasn’t serious. I’d keep my poker face on for another second or two before smiling.
One year, a girl asked, “Why did you do that?”
“When I stand in front of you at the beginning of each class,” I said, “I want you to be quiet and pay attention. You’re more likely to do that now. I also want you to get into the habit of thinking critically about everything you hear. I want you to ask yourself: ‘Is this opinion? Is this fact? What evidence exists? Is there enough evidence to constitute proof?’ Stuff like that.”
After a week went by I’d begin each of my four or five history classes saying: “I have good news and bad news. What do you want first?” Inevitably, they’d want the bad first, so I’d say, “You’re all going to die.”
Some would look surprised. Some had no discernible reaction and others would just smile. Then a student would say, “We know that.”
“Okay, good,” I’d say. “I don’t mean today or tomorrow, but some day.”
“Right. Good. So then it’s only a matter of when and how.”
“What’s the point?”
“Some of us will live a long time and some of us won’t.”
“We know that.”
“It’s one of the very few things we can be certain of,” I’d explain. “It’s good to keep in mind that we’re here for a limited time, not forever, and what we do every day matters.”
“You’re going to die too, Mr. McLaughlin.”
“Yes, and probably before you do,” I’d respond. “So I probably think about it more and give it closer attention than you do. That’s the nature of things. On average, someone my age can expect about twenty more years, more or less, and each day gets more precious with that awareness. Not a bad thing.”
“The good news is that - if the past is any guide - most of you will live longer than your parents, your grandparents, and your great-grandparents,” I’d tell them. Then I’d go on to explain average life expectancies for Americans today, compare them with what they were at other times in history, and with those of people in other places. That would work into how long a generation was and so forth. Teaching 20th century US History, I could say, “This would have been going on when your grandparents were children,” or “around when your great-grandparents were born,” etc. That helped put what might otherwise just be obscure events into perspective.
That’s the way I began my last several years in the classroom. When Veterans’ Day came in November, I’d point out that veterans were willing to give their lives for things they believed more important than themselves - usually the things students said every morning in the Pledge of Allegiance. When Martin Luther King Day came in January, I’d quote King, saying: “If a man has nothing he would die for, he isn’t fit to live.” I’d then ask if there were anything they would die for. Some indicated they would be willing to risk their lives for their families. Upon further questioning, I’d be dismayed to learn that others could think of nothing worth dying for. When Memorial Day weekend loomed, I’d inform them of the meaning of this holiday - honoring those who not only risked their lives, but gave them.
The theme of our limited lifespans presented many opportunities for lessons throughout the school year, including Ben Franklin’s quote about death and taxes, our radical Muslim enemies willing to die in their efforts to kill us, as well as different ideas about the meaning of human life, including the nihilist view - widespread in the late 20th century - that it had no meaning at all. It was a rich mine, and I drew from it often.