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2005-11-06 | 11:51 p.m.

My class wants to know about 1984. We are reading Charlotte's Web, not 1984, but when I mention the elegant quality of White's prose, one of the students asks, "Have you ever read Animal Farm?"

"Yes," I say, mentally bristling at the interruption, "I've read Animal Farm and I've read 1984, and as much as I admire Orwell, he is not..."

But he wants to know about 1984, the others do, too; they cannot rest until they know about 1984. Fern and Wilbur and Charlotte must wait. So I tell them a little about 1984. To my surprise, I can't remember the main character's name. Damn it. Lionel? Leland? I remember 'Julia,' for what it's worth. Then I get stuck trying to explain totalitarianism, without simply resorting to the word 'totalitarianism,' which clearly means nothing to them. I like these kids, but wow, what they donít know, you could make Encyclopedia Britannica out of! So, stalling for time, I say it was written in 1948 (get it), and I ask them to think about what was going on in the world in 1948. I don't expect them to get far, but the same kid speaks up right away.

"The Gold Rush!" he exclaims.

"Oh, I said '1948'," I say, speaking up so he can hear me better.

"Yeah, the Gold Rush," he repeats. He is confident in this answer.

"Well, that's 1848." I'm smiling, but I feel a little embarrassed for him.

"Oh, whoops," he laughs. "Only off by a hundred years."

I start talking about Stalin, and it seems to me that only one of them has the slightest idea who I am talking about. And Iím thinking, Damn, you guys are 15, 16 years old, how can you not know this stuff?

And then I say, "When were you guys born, anyway?" and that same kid says, "1990." I can hear other kids murmuring "1989."

"Youíre kidding," I say. Holy crap! They had seemed like real people only moments ago. No wonder they donít know anything. I just never really thought about it before. Christ, compared to them, I really am frighteningly old!

They like hearing the history stories more than talking about fiction, but I'm supposed to be teaching them Language Arts. Next time, maybe I'll ask if I can teach history instead. Or I was thinking I could do a class that combines history and lit. I was already thinking I wanted to do a class all about Shakespeare--why not just beef up the Renaissance history? But it would be fun to do 20th century history, too. I could certainly stand a refresher me own self.

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