Thank You, Miss Kopp

What my sixth grade teacher taught me about studying history and the powerful impact of our actions

Maroke/ Shutterstock
Maroke/ Shutterstock

Yesterday I wrote about a bad teacher.

Today I write about a good one — Janice Kopp.

Miss Kopp was my 6th-grade teacher. She was strict, scary, a grammar fanatic, and … utterly heroic. She remains one of the two or three best teachers I ever had, at any level. She once assigned me a project on the values and beliefs of ancient Romans. She once assigned me to read and write about A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, in sixth flipping grade.

She once made me and my classmates stand up, one by one, to recite from memory the full list of English-language prepositions.

About …

Above …

Across …

After …

I can still run through the first handful anyway.

But the day I’ll never forget started with a seemingly harmless question. She asked why we even study history, as a subject.

A whole host of us gave decent, good-enough answers, but … good enough was never okay for Miss Kopp.


Not even close!


We sat there giving answer after answer, each one rejected loudly by Miss Kopp. At first she enjoyed rejecting the answers, but with each rejected response her tone grew angrier and more insistent, until finally we were reduced collectively — she and 25 sixth-graders — to a long, and I mean longgggg, silent stalemate.

As a class, we realized we did not have the answer and that Miss Kopp wasn’t going to move on to any other topic, any other question, any other conversation of any kind, until one of us finally stepped up to the plate and gave the correct answer.

I don’t know how long we sat there. It felt like forever. We were just basically waiting for the bell to ring, so that we could escape that withering glare, that furious face of a teacher who knew we could do better.

And then my classmate Billy Bishop, god bless him, pulled the answer right out of the ether and quietly delivered us from our collective agony.

“Those who do not learn history are condemned to repeat it?” he said tentatively.

I do not know where in the hell 6th-grade Billy Bishop had heard this phrase, I don’t know whether he could have told you himself, that day, where he’d heard it.

Who. The. Fuck. Knows.

My point is, Miss Kopp — in 1978, at Chevy Chase Elementary School — went full Socratic method on us. And it worked.

When Billy quietly offered up that answer, Miss Kopp slapped the desk in front of her as loud as I’ve ever heard anyone slap an object. She shot out of her chair.

In that moment I didn’t know whether she was going to leap across the desk and strangle Billy, for giving a wrong answer, or come running out to hug him and celebrate him, for giving the right one.

She did neither. Her loud slap was enough to vent her furious jubilation, and to break the spell.

“THAT!” she shouted, pointing at Billy, jabbing her finger in the air. “THAT is why we study history!”

And that was it. Class dismissed.

I tell you this story today because: a) it was a highly effective — if also terrifying and somewhat deranged — teaching method, one which permanently lodged the “condemned to repeat it” quote at the core of my brain, and b) in my opinion, America could stand to contemplate the same question today — why do we study history?

We were born in 1968 — me, Billy Bishop, most of the others in that classroom. We were in our mother’s wombs when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, when Bobby Kennedy was assassinated. We were born into a world which bears striking similarities, in hindsight, to the fractured, frazzled, polarized spot where our nation is now.

I’m not going to bother trying to argue which year was scarier — 1968 or 2020.

I’m not going to bother telling you whether to vote for or against Trump.

I’m just going to tell you what I myself believe.

The killing of Dr. King was an appalling, pivotal tragedy.

So was the killing of Bobby Kennedy.

So was the Vietnam War. Many thousands died in that war, including Americans, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians, French, Chinese, Russian, and South Koreans, to list just some of the countries.

Which leads me to my second example of extraordinary, principled, inspired teaching.

I never knew much about the failed presidential candidate Marianne Williamson. I was dimly aware of her as a self-help author. And then all of a sudden she was on stage with other candidates at the Democratic debates four months ago. 

Huh, I thought. Odd, but okay.

And then I forgot all about her.

But last week my friend Camille Landau pointed me to a podcast interview which Williamson did last year.

If you are the type who has time or interest to listen to an hour interview on topics you might or might not even care about, go for it. If you don’t, but you are curious about Marianne Williamson, here’s a Washington Post story about her.

In the podcast, at the 36-minute mark, Williamson starts describing her father. She describes his background, his profession, his personality. And then she describes a parenting moment which made my jaw drop.

As a 7th-grader, Marianne Williamson came home from school one day repeating what she’d learned in a social studies class.

Our country needs to go to war in Vietnam because countries are like dominoes, and if one domino falls … And so on.

Her father stood up and bellowed to his wife.

“Sweetheart! Get the visas! We’re going to Saigon!”

And … they did.

The family went to Vietnam.

This was 1965. The father took his family to the other side of the world to show them a country which was already starting to experience war and which would soon experience horrifying levels of death and destruction. He wanted his kids to have a visceral, human understanding of a country — a country, not a freaking domino — which would soon be enveloped in chaos and agony.

I can’t even imagine being this brave, principled, or — frankly — insane. (Nor can I imagine successfully organizing my wife and kids on any project, let alone a voyage to a war-torn country. But that’s a separate problem.)

But today I say, god bless Marianne Williamson’s father.

And god bless my teacher Miss Kopp.

And god bless teachers who give enough of a damn to make us temporarily uncomfortable in service of higher principles, of truth, of inspiring us to tune into our better angels.

Whether he realized it or not, the person Billy Bishop was quoting that day was Winston Churchill, who himself was paraphrasing the writer George Santayana.

Santayana’s line was, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

The person who speaks to me — across time — is Dr. King.

He is the better angel I will be tuning into, when I’m trying to figure out what I need, what my family needs, what our country needs, what principles should guide me.

People remember his greatest hits, of course. But they forget that he was saying the right thing right up to the very end, even when it was pissing off many who had been his allies.

His speaking out against the Vietnam War in 1967 brought an avalanche of criticism, from all quarters, including the Rev. Billy Graham, President Lyndon B. Johnson, and newspapers across the U.S.

Dr. King was right about Vietnam, of course. In hindsight, he was dead right.

And then he was … well, dead.

He was assassinated.

As was Bobby Kennedy.

As was Mahatma Gandhi.

As was the historical Jesus Christ, for that matter.

A message of radical love and tolerance can lead to homicidal violence against the messenger.

That’s because it’s a revolutionary message.

And powerful people are scared of revolutions.

But it doesn’t mean the underlying message is wrong.

Originally published on

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