When I was in my 11th grade AP U.S. History class, my teacher told us there was one date we needed to remember. May 17th, 1954 – Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka Kansas. The landmark decision that declared racially segregated schools as unconstitutional, and sparked several crucial events in the civil rights movement. It’s also an event that has become prevalent again, considering the volatile state of our country.
Over the course of the school year, he reiterated this date – and we would often have to repeat it back to him, to ensure sure we knew it verbatim. There were other dates that he impressed the importance of upon us, but that one was the big one.
In fact, one time, he was speaking to one of our principals while three of us were sitting in his room studying during a free period, and he merely turned to us, got our attention and pointed at us, like a maestro giving a cue.
One of us instantly said, “May 17th, 1954 – Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka Kansas.”
Not to be outdone, I said, “June 6th, 1944. The Normandy landings, otherwise known as D-Day.”
And the last of us said, “September 17th, 1787 – the signing of the Constitution of the United States of America.”
Our teacher then looked at our startled principal and gave her a look, as if to say, “See? What did I tell you?” He had us trained, and trained well. When that date showed up not once, but twice on the AP U.S. History exam that year, I gleefully answered those questions with confidence.
And I haven’t forgotten it, all these years later. I didn’t quite realize the gravity of that date, and that landmark decision, back when I learned it – even though he so adamantly told us to remember it. It was some distant thing that happened ages ago. It was little more than history. Since then, I have come to understand the importance. When it comes up in movies, I can better place the context. When I read it in books, I gain a better understanding. When I see what happens in the world to this day, and the injustice that people face, that date blares in my mind like a siren.
So I consider it a blessing that I listened when my teacher said, “remember this,” because now that I am older – and maybe, just maybe, a bit wiser than a 16 year old girl from rural PA – I am able to better grasp the relevance of May 17th, 1954. I have forgotten tons and tons of things I learned in both high school and in college – it’s all too easy for tidbits of info to slip between the cracks of memory.
But that date is one thing I will not forget.