Monday, September 5, 2016

The Day Maria Saved Me from Myself

It was the late 1980s, and I was teaching United States History in a Texas high school. I had already taught middle school social studies in Tennessee for 8 years. Furthermore, I had completed 15+ graduate hours in history before I began teaching.
In spite of being a history major at the undergraduate level, I had never studied the history of Latin America. This changed when I took a graduate course in Latin American history. During this course, I completed a short research paper on Francisco (Pancho) Villa, which included his raid on Columbus, New Mexico on March 9, 1916.
Like too many male history teachers that I knew, I loved to tell the “blood and guts” stories in history. Before you get too angry, I know this statement verges on being a stereotype of male high school history teachers. However, I am referring only to the male history teachers that I knew at that time. I announced to my class that on the next day we would discuss Pancho Villa, and I would share information about his invasion of the United States and his raid on Columbus, New Mexico. I had never read of this event in any middle or high school American History textbook. In fact, Mexican History was seldom mentioned outside of a very brief reference to early colonial history of the Americans and the Zimmermann Telegram, and its impact on our entrance to World War I. Regardless, I had all of my “blood and guts” stories ready to go.
Then there was Maria.
She was a very quiet Hispanic young lady in my 9th grade history class who never said a word in our discussions. However, when I mentioned Pancho Villa her arm went up, she was waving her hand to get my attention, and she had a huge smile across her face. I was so shocked that all I could say was, “Maria!” She responded, “My mother told me that her father (Maria’s grandfather) rode with Pancho Villa.”
I am quite sure I turned pale and stood speechless for 30 seconds (an eternity for teachers). In spite of being caught off guard, I retreated to that classic teacher response, “Maria, go home tonight and ask your mother what her father told her about Pancho Villa, write down what she says, and you may share it with our class tomorrow.” She did exactly what I asked. It was not a very good report mainly because I did not give her any help, and she was in that world of using Spanish at home and English at school. What did I do with my “blood and guts” story of Pancho Villa’s raid on Columbus, New Mexico? I folded my notes on this raid, took them home, and never again used this story in class.
Why? First, I could not think of any educational value in using this story in my 9th grade United States history class. In the early 1900s, Pancho Villa was much like a “Robin Hood” to the poor in northern Mexico. Second, telling this story would simply crush the spirit of Maria, a precious young lady in my 9th grade class who only knew that her grandfather rode with Pancho Villa, an important person mentioned in history books.
I am not talking about being “politically correct” when deciding the stories to tell from American history. This story should not be told even in high school without providing students an understanding of the history of Mexico, which includes the Mexican Civil War, the poverty of the mainly native American citizens of northern Mexico, and the role of a very popular Pancho Villa, who was later assassinated. Furthermore, the President ordered the invasion of Mexico by the United States military under the command of John J. Pershing in an unsuccessful campaign against Pancho Villa. This single story of the attack by Pancho Villa on Columbus, New Mexico is too complex to drop in the lap of 9th graders without putting it in a historical context.
As a teacher may I never use my knowledge, power, or authority to crush the spirit of my students.
Bless you my children,
Terry L. Simpson


  1. What a great and sensitive story. As teachers, we never know where the ripples will land.

  2. What a great and sensitive story. As teachers, we never know where the ripples will land.