Meet The Teacher That Changed How I Looked At History Forever
Photo Credits: RODNAE Productions/Pexels
He had eyes like a shark — small, dark, and unfathomable, darting from side to side. He was gray like one, too, heavy and pale with wiry iron hair. And he expected us, his students, to have skin as thick as theirs.
His name was Vernon Lambert, and he was by far one of the most terrifying and demanding teachers I have ever had … and one of the most brilliant, passionate, and inspiring. He is the reason I majored in history and began a pre-law track, even if I didn’t finish it. His eighth-grade class was what made me more prepared for college four years later than any other high school class that followed, and pushed me to become a better and more curious and questioning researcher — skills that continue to serve me today.
He taught social studies, that strange combination of global and American history, geography, culture, society, civics, government, and economics. But in his case, I use the term “taught” loosely. His approach was to instead, for two periods every other day, make his students live it.
There were no notes to be copied from a blackboard or projector. We were to build an instinct for what details were remarkable, as well as an ability to write and listen simultaneously. No in-class reading time for daydreaming or passing notes. We were to learn of events and process strictly from personal experience, and any details we missed was on us — he wasn’t going to spoon-feed us, as he announced in his harsh orator’s voice, since college professors weren’t going to, either. In this way, he set up the expectation that each and every one of us were college material, and he would treat us as no less — a message some in my class desperately needed to hear through their rebellion or depression.
He didn’t ease us into this dramatically different style of teaching, either. The first week of class, he announced that our classroom was a body of governed constituents and would remain so through the end of the year. He chose a Supreme Court chief justice who would hold that role the entire term, much like how real ones serve for life, passing down judgments in historic cases we ourselves would fight. For that position of authority, he selected a quiet rebel of a boy who had an air of neglect about him, at that tender age, already selling drugs and smoking weed.
He had us serve as jury members to his Supreme Court chief justice, as assigned prosecutors and defenders worked to change history. It was their job to find out what went wrong or right in those past cases, and convince us that their positioning was technically correct. It was up to us to decide who won, by vote and written reasoning, in lieu of traditional quizzes.
His name was Vernon Lambert, and he was by far one of the most terrifying and demanding teachers I have ever had … and one of the most brilliant, passionate, and inspiring.
He showed us democracy at work as we elected presidents for quarters at a time, who in turn had to appoint Cabinet members. Their group projects were to share with us their contributions during historic events and defend choices made decades, even centuries ago, by those characters they were embodying while we individual students — the constituents — questioned their decisions.
He appointed ambassadors to represent foreign nations, and went outside the box to do it, breaking racial and gender barriers. Children of color represented European, Australian nations; white ones dove into the cultures and societies in Africa, Asia, Central America, and South America. And as ambassadors, our job was to plead cases to the class president for American aid, intervention, or turn a blind eye, who would then put it to his or her (yes, her) Cabinet for input.
For a year, our class of about 22 students played pretend. We debated. We impeached. We yelled and stamped and stormed and cried and got red in the face. Did and said things that in any other class, in any other setting, would have triggered disciplinary action. We worked harder that year than we’d ever worked before and thought more independently than we were ever allowed to do previously.
But most importantly, we, a group of 13- and 14-year-olds … we cared. Passionately.
I tried reaching out to him through my middle-school years to tell him of his impact. I never got a response. I’ve tried Googling him to see if he is still on this side of the veil. Nothing.
It has been nearly 25 years since I sat nervously in his classroom as his ruthless, beady eyes assessed the prepubescent motley crew before him. I’ll never forget how terrified I was as he laid out what his expectations were, and warned us to ask to switch to a different teacher now if we didn’t think we could handle the pressure. And I’ll never forget how sad I was leaving that unexpectedly amazing classroom that final day, but also how confident I felt. Confident in my ability to write shorthand notes and take dictation. To make good, informed, well-researched choices. To stand up for myself and in front of others. Demand attention, respect, and the spotlight while rejecting barriers as constructs.
Of all the social studies he covered, these social aspects were perhaps the most resonant of them all. And I am grateful.
This post is part of a series honoring beloved teachers who make a difference with their kindness, love, and wisdom each day. Thank you to all of our educators from all of us at CircleAround.com. To read other stories in this series, please click here.