Confessions of a Seventh-Grade Texas History Teacher
Bobby Jackson has taught students in the Aransas County school district about the Plains Indians, the Battle of San Jacinto, and Spindletop since the state celebrated its sesquicentennial. How he does it bears no resemblance to the class I took when I was stuck in middle school.
Of all the remote corners of Texas considered difficult to reach—the Lower Canyons of the Rio Grande, in Big Bend National Park; the center-field wall at Minute Maid Park, in Houston; the butcher block at Franklin Barbecue, in Austin—the single most challenging can actually be found in every big city and rural burg in the state: the mind of a seventh grader. It’s a destination with no clear path, the ground around it littered with hormonal land mines, the terrain ever shifting as growth spurts are endured or, even worse, anxiously awaited. In one of God’s great dirty tricks, an awareness of peer pressure presents itself during roughly the same week as zits. Soon come a new voice, a new shape, a new smell. Nothing about it is easy, not for the seventh graders and certainly not for the teachers charged with trying to get through to them.
This was distinctly evident on the second-to-last Thursday in May at Rockport-Fulton Middle School. One week of school to go. When the bell rang that morning to send the kids to first period, thirty of them drifted into Bobby Jackson’s Texas history class. The boys, mostly in T-shirts or hoodies but all with bed head, started fidgeting before they’d even found their desks; a couple forgot to take off their backpacks when they sat down, then leaned forward awkwardly for the rest of the hour. The girls were more awake. Most of them appeared to have spent more time on their hair that morning than the boys had all semester, and ponytails sprouted from their heads at purposefully odd angles. Two girls traded yearbooks, and two more put on eyeliner, alarming another girl in the back of the room. “Didn’t you see Facebook this morning?” she asked. “It’s ‘No Makeup Day.’ ” One of the primping girls shot a glare that you’d think would be reserved for her mother. But when the bell rang, their faces warmed and turned to Jackson, a 37-year teaching veteran who at that moment was standing by his desk making last-minute tweaks to the day’s lesson.
Every grade has a favorite teacher, and for Rockport-Fulton’s seventh, it’s Jackson. The first clue as to why is the classroom itself. It’s announced by a large state flag hanging just outside his door and Texas-shaped Christmas lights strung over the threshold. Inside, the walls are the same white cinder block as every other room in the building, but his are decked out like a state-line tourist trap, with pictures and doodads covering nearly every square inch. There is the expected, like the national flag of Mexico and the battle flag of the Confederacy. But a bulletin board entitled “Cattle Is King” has, in addition to images of cowboys and cows and the names of famous ranches, a barn-wood sign reading “Who let the cows out?” Along with portraits of the heroes of the Texas Revolution, there’s one of Napoleon Dynamite. Not far from Jackson’s collection of Alamo movie posters is another poster displaying a menu for something called the Roadkill Cafe. And next to that is a portion of wall dedicated to Aggie jokes. He’s got two “You Might Be a Redneck” calendars, one neon light shaped like Texas and another like a jalapeño, and six different-colored lava lamps, all under bunches of red, white, and blue ribbons and balloons that hang from the ceiling. “You should see it when he turns the lights off,” said one girl later. “It’s so cool.”
The desks are arranged so that they face an empty space in the center of the room that Jackson calls his stage, and as he stepped into it, all eyes widened and a few jaws dropped. Short, squat, and recently turned sixty, he’d traded his usual golf shirt for the period dress of a Tejano elder statesman circa 1900: a dark-brown suit, silk vest, and floppy brown string tie. His thin gray hair had been teased out and colored white, and the broad plain of his face—far-set hazel eyes; a wide, flat nose; and permanently pursed lips—had been darkened with layers of makeup.
The kids leaned forward for a better look. This was one of Jackson’s living-history portrayals, a foray back in time to conduct class in character as a figure from Texas history. The occasions are famous at the school, something that Rockport-Fulton sixth graders look forward to as a seventh-grade rite of passage. They are such an institution, in fact, that the school has isolated his classroom, sandwiching it between two storage rooms, so that the frequent spike in volume won’t bother other teachers. “You know, guys,” he began, “some students stopped me in the hallway just now and said, ‘I thought you were dressing up today.’ Needless to say, they’ve been taken care of.”
Today’s role is Jackson’s personal favorite: Enrique Esparza. Esparza was an eight-year-old Tejano boy who sneaked into the Alamo with his family on the day the siege began, and later saw his father, Gregorio, die during the battle. But Jackson plays the character with a twist, depicting Esparza as an old man. “Remember how I told you during the unit on the Texas Revolution that after Enrique left the Alamo he dedicated his life to sharing his memories with anyone who would listen, so that the world would know how these men sacrificed their lives for us?” The kids nodded their heads. “While I’m portraying him, I don’t want you just to listen. I want you to listen actively. Listen through the ears of a reporter. Because when I’m done, you’re going to interview him. So think about what you would want to know from someone who was actually there.
“And now I’d like to introduce”—Jackson pulled a flat-brimmed hat over his head and grabbed a cane leaning against his desk—“Enrique Esparza.”
He shuffled back to the center of the room and began to talk in a wheezy voice with a Mexican accent. “Buenos días, niños y niñas. Mi nombre es . . . ahh . . . perdónenme. Sometimes I forget to speak the inglés.” A few students stifled giggles. “My name is Enrique. Enrique Esparza. I am now seventy-nine years young in this year of our Lord, 1907, but I am still known as the Boy of the Alamo. You ask me, do I remember it?” He leaned into the face of a girl on the front row. “I tell you—how could I forget?”
For the next 25 minutes, the kids sat entranced by this eyewitness account of the creation myth of Texas. It’s a version that historians take with a grain of salt; the language is too flowery, the narrative too tidy. The seventh graders, on the other hand, swallowed it whole, as served.
Esparza opened with his father’s fighting to drive General Cos out of San Antonio in December 1835, then described seeing Santa Anna ride in front of the Mexican army when they returned the next February. He talked about climbing through a window of the Alamo chapel when his family took refuge and, during the two weeks of the siege, taking meals to his father, who manned a cannon. He described the Alamo heroes: Crockett telling jokes, Bowie falling sick, and Travis drawing his line in the sand. Leaps in the action were perfectly timed to the moments when a seventh grader might drift into space. “BOOM! went the cannons with that terrible noise that the Indians called ‘black thunder,’ ” and all the students jumped. As he moved to the final morning, he grew louder and more animated, and the kids on the two front rows—known throughout the grade as Jackson’s “splash zone” for his habit of spraying it when he’s saying it—pushed back from their desks. Pantomiming the fighting, he scurried between students. A girl tried to crawl out of her seat when he turned around suddenly and thrust his cane at her like a bayonet. But then he got quiet and his chin started to quiver as he described finding his father, mortally wounded, and watching him die.
Once the battle had ended, Esparza waded through the carnage with the surviving women and children as they were led to Santa Anna. When his mother defiantly proclaimed herself a Texian, Santa Anna bellowed, “Woman! You ought to have your ears cut off!” A girl on the second row cupped her hands over her ears. “Santa Anna then shouted, ‘Get them out of here! Give each woman a blanket and a piece of silver.’ As we left we heard him say, ‘¡Vámanos!’—and we did.”
Esparza closed by describing the funeral pyres of the slain Texians and the ungodly smell that lingered in San Antonio for weeks. “No tongue can describe the horror of that fateful day. My mother told me to forget all I had seen. But I could not. I would not!” His voice rose again as he pointed to the ceiling. “I will always remember the Alamo!”
No applause followed. Instead the room filled with the sound of pencil points scribbling questions on work sheets. “Okay, guys,” said Jackson, returning to the present, “those were Enrique’s exact words, taken from primary sources I’ve found, from interviews and presentations he actually gave.”
A boy’s voice floated up from the back of the room. “Nice,” he said coolly.
Nothing Jackson does resembles even faintly what most of us remember of seventh-grade Texas history. If you took it in the late seventies, like I did, you recall a fat orange textbook—or was it brown?—that was thicker than any other two classes’ combined. It contained exactly one interesting chapter, the one about the Alamo and San Jacinto, which you’d read on your own time during the first week of class. Then you’d sit through endless patter about conquistadores and colonization while waiting for the teacher to get to the good part. Once that ended, so did your interest. It was like a movie with the denouement in the first act. Luckily, the teachers seldom got past Spindletop.
Still, we knew it as a statewide institution, an aspect of the seventh-grade experience that was as momentous as the chance to finally play school sports. The State Board of Education enshrined Texas history as such in 1946, when it made the course a required component of the seventh-grade curriculum; for most of the previous 35 years it had been taught the grade before. Nobody knows why the board members chose awkward adolescence, though University of Texas historian H. W. Brands, who wrote a book on the Texas Revolution called Lone Star Nation, has likened it to Catholic confirmation and Jewish bar and bat mitzvahs: the kids are old enough to grasp the material but not so mature that they question the orthodoxy. The religious comparison is apt. While many states don’t specifically teach their own history, Texas actually requires kids to take two full years, having added a fourth-grade course in the early sixties.
Weird, then, that the teaching of it often falls to coaches, instructors who are typically biding their time while waiting for a high school (read: varsity) job. “When I took seventh-grade Texas history in Rockport in the sixties, it was pretty much ‘read a chapter and answer questions,’ with no discussion,” Jackson explained to me in his classroom during an off period. “I hardly remember anything about it.”
He’s so absorbed in the subject now that when he says he has taught only Texas history since 1986, he reflexively points out that it was the year of the sesquicentennial. But it’s his personal history that pushed him in this direction and informs much of what he does. His family came to Rockport in the late 1870’s, when a great-great-grandfather on his mother’s side moved from Goliad to open a school. His father’s family came with the railroad shortly thereafter. For years the Jacksons ran a large shrimping operation, passing down stories about the great hurricane of 1919, which the company survived, and the oil embargo of the seventies, which it did not. By that time Jackson already knew he wanted to teach, inspired by childhood history trips around the state with his mother to all the old missions and battlegrounds.
“Everything I learned was from reading books on my own,” he said. “And now I don’t teach about anywhere I haven’t been. I vowed to myself early on that I was not going to be my Texas history teacher.” In 1999 the Daughters of the Republic of Texas named him the Texas history teacher of the year, and now he serves on the DRT committee that gives that award.
He starts challenging kids’ expectations the first day of school. “We do a brainstorming activity where I put the kids on a timer and ask them to give their perceptions of a Texan. Then we talk about stereotypes, myths, and legends. I tell them that a lot of our stories could or could not be true. The kids need to know there’s more to every story.” Then he stays as personal, passionate, and interactive as he can. He has his students write letters to Stephen F. Austin applying to be among the first three hundred colonists. He reenacts Gonzales, Goliad, and San Jacinto in his classroom. “I portray a survivor of the Battle of San Jacinto, Stephen Franklin Sparks, who lived and died in Rockport. He was sixteen when he fought for Ben Milam, and he ended up being the second-to-last survivor of the Texas Revolution to pass away. And he was just about their age when he did all this.” When he gets to the 1919 hurricane, he plays interviews with aging eyewitnesses that he recorded as part of his master’s thesis at Corpus Christi State. He also tells the students his own family’s hurricane stories, all while dressed in a two-piece, striped bathing suit and straw boater that look like an outfit Buster Keaton would have worn to the beach.
He has taught in that manner his entire career, presaging the way Texas history is supposed to be learned today. There has been a trend in recent years away from the hero model of history to an emphasis on the everyman stories. Jackson once invited the grandmother of a student to come in and talk about growing up in the Panhandle during the Dust Bowl. With the state’s changing demographics, there’s also been a push toward cultural inclusion, an emphasis on making sure that all kids learn about people who look like them. Jackson was already there. “Everybody needs to hear about Juan Seguín,” he said. (Seguín, just in case you don’t recall your own seventh-grade history, was the complicated figure who fought with the Texians at San Jacinto but then, after being driven out of San Antonio by immigrant Anglos, served under Santa Anna during the Mexican-American War.) “A lot of Texans considered him a traitor. My kids think he was patriotic. They defend him. They say, ‘Look at what he did. He buried the ashes of the Alamo heroes. He fought at San Jacinto even though Houston told him not to because he was worried the Texian army would confuse Tejanos for Mexicans and shoot them.’ The kids don’t see it as a racial issue. They’re accepting of all cultures, and they get upset because people back then weren’t.”
Other changes have required Jackson to play catch-up. One of the things hanging from the ceiling among the balloons is a projector connected to his laptop. He uses it almost every day to show YouTube videos and slide shows created from Google image searches that illustrate lessons. More significantly, new state guidelines that went into effect in 2011 mandate that he cover a far greater range of material, including contemporary figures like Michael DeBakey and Michael Dell. The day after his Esparza act, he taught “Famous Texans in the Cultural Arts,” people like Elizabet Ney and Horton Foote. He did it Jackson-style. For Amado Peña, he brought in two Peña prints from his house and talked about going to college with the famous painter at Texas A&I, in Kingsville. Then he asked the kids if they knew who Walter Prescott Webb was. One boy asked, “Did he invent the Internet?” Jackson paused a second (get it? World Wide Webb?) then laughed, said no, and pulled a copy of The Texas Rangers from the Webb section of his bookshelf. “Y’all, he was a historian. And he wrote this book, which is like my bible.” Again the air filled with the sound of scribbling.
“I was pretty terrified going into this year about all these new changes,” Jackson admitted. In addition to the longer time line, he had to give a greater context, relating Texan events to the world at large. “So we compared Santa Anna to King George. That’s good. That reminds them we’re part of a bigger family.” But packing everything in seemed impossible at first. “Veteran teachers like me have favorite units we like to spend more time on. I could spend the whole year on the Texas Revolution. I’ve had to condense that.” Most mornings he’d show up at school by 4:15 a.m. to create lessons he’d never taught before. “I’ve never worked so hard in my life.”
None of which would amount to much if the material didn’t stick. After third period on Friday, I met with five of his students who had volunteered to be interviewed. Addie Byerly, a thoughtful, brown-haired girl dressed in gym clothes because she’d been pulled from athletics, paid him the ultimate tribute: “When there’s a sub in his class, we don’t disrespect the sub like you would in any other class. Mr. Jackson is so respected in the grade.”
But they were just as ready to talk about Texas. The conversation wasn’t exactly a George Stephanopoulos roundtable, but that’s largely because the participants were polite.
“We went from dinosaurs to, like, LBJ,” said lanky Max Manson, revealing a mouthful of braces.
“The NASA site in Houston was named after him,” added Natalie Bettes, a brunette in a Tony Romo jersey.
“But people didn’t like him because of the Vietnam War,” explained Jordan Bogaards, who moved to Texas from Alabama at the start of sixth grade. “It was lasting too long and killing everyone.”
I asked what they thought about Texas before encountering Mr. Jackson. Emma Foster, a confident girl at the far end of the table, spoke first. “People think Texans are hillbillies. Cowboy hats and boots, and we ride horses.”
Max expounded. “I went to Six Flags once, and there were people there from California, and they all said I had an accent and stuff.”
“I didn’t know Texas at all before I moved here,” said Jordan. “Now I think it’s pretty interesting. It’s actually one of the most important states in the U.S. It’s the top beef cattle and oil supplier. And it made about eighty percent of the oil supplies in World War II.”
“We built a lot of battleships,” said Addie.
“And our ecosystem is more diverse because we have four natural regions,” added Natalie. “Most states just have one.”
When I quizzed the kids about specific figures, none of the answers flowed particularly smoothly. They hemmed and hawed, and then they spoke over one another, possibly because they were nervous to talk to a reporter. Or maybe they were just being seventh graders. But in fits and starts, they went on to talk knowledgeably about a range of topics, including Texas’s annexation into the union, the Crash at Crush, the New London school explosion, and Barbara Jordan.
When I relayed that to Jackson he beamed. At one point, this year’s workload had him thinking about life after teaching. He gets enough requests from civic groups and the DRT for his living-history portrayals—he has played Enrique at the Alamo—that he wondered if he could do them full-time. He videotaped a couple in hopes of selling them to school districts around the state. But when he saw the kids soak up the new material, everything from dinosaurs to, like, LBJ, he put that on hold. “I told the kids that I had really thought this would be my last year,” he said, “and that they changed my mind.”
When the students started interviewing Esparza at the end of class, a little more of Jackson came out. He is not a rock star. He does not exude the kind of charisma or buddy-buddy charm that you might think would be necessary to get through to the kids. But he’s kind. He talks to them genuinely and in a soft tone, using their language. He says things like “Awesome listening today, James.” And when he listens to them, he raises his eyebrows in a way that says he’s trying to make sure that he’s been clear, not that he’s skeptical that they’ve understood.
That’s the expression Esparza wore, and the kids’ questions were exactly what you would expect. The boys wanted to know things like if he ever went on to kill a man. The girls, on the other hand, asked things like “Was survivor’s guilt an issue for you or your family?”
But all the questions were reflective. One boy asked if he had met Madam Candelaria, the nurse who, according to one legend, was at Bowie’s side when he died. Perhaps mindful of the dubiousness of the story, Esparza said he had not.
“What did you think of Rose, the man who didn’t cross Colonel Travis’s line?” asked one boy.
“I had the utmost respect for him,” Esparza explained. “His name was Moses Rose, and he was much older than the rest. He had actually fought in France as a member of Napoleon’s army and had been fighting for more years than some of these men had been alive. But he said, ‘I am not ready to die.’ No one at the Alamo considered him a coward.”
Esparza turned to a teacher who was sitting in on his presentation. “Señora, do you have something to ask?” She leaned over the desk of a boy in front of her, one who doesn’t like to talk in class, and read from his work sheet. “Why would Santa Anna give the women a blanket and silver?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “We saw him as cruel and evil. But I think every person has a human side. He was beloved by many of his own people. Maybe he was saying he was sorry for killing my father, as if our forgiveness could be bought so cheaply. I think he did it to make himself feel good.”
Shortly, the bell rang and surprisingly, the kids froze, waiting for Jackson to release them. Once they were gone, he sat at his desk for the first time all period. The collar of his white shirt had a thin ring of brown at the top where sweat had carried makeup down his face and neck. He looked drained but excited. “This has really been a wonderful year,” he said. “The kids responded to things I never thought they’d get into. They really want to know more than you think they do.” Then he turned to his notes. He had exactly three minutes until the next class showed up and he would have to start all over.