"The History Teacher" first appeared in Billy Collins's 1991 poetry collection Questions About Angels. The poem depicts a history teacher who strives to preserve his students' innocence by telling them sugarcoated, fictitious versions of historical events with all suffering or cruelty removed. Despite his efforts to hide the truth about history—or perhaps because of them—his students become cruel and violent, bullying and beating up their peers on the playground. The history teacher remains unaware of the negative effects of his lessons, seemingly happy to live within the idyllic world that he has created for his ignorant pupils. Collins mixes his traditional wry sense of humor with a striking, serious message about the dangers of keeping learners from the truth.
Trying to protect ...
... to wear sweaters.
And the Stone ...
... of the time.
The Spanish Inquisition ...
... the matador's hat?"
The War of ...
... on Japan.
The children would ...
... breaking their glasses,
while he gathered ...
... enemy nod off.
Select any word below to get its definition in the context of the poem. The words are listed in the order in which they appear in the poem.
The Poem Out Loud — Watch a video of "The History Teacher" read aloud and accompanied by a series of illustrations.
The Boer War — Learn more about the war referenced in the end of the poem (which had nothing to do with "boring" soldiers!).
Collins's Voice — This video provides an opportunity to hear Billy Collins's dryly witty delivery of his own poetry followed by a lengthy interview.
The War of the Roses — The real story of the War of the Roses, which did not take place in a garden (but did inspire the Game of Thrones series!).
Biography of Billy Collins — This biographical portrait of Billy Collins offers a thorough chronology of his work and a variety of responses from critics.
The Spanish Inquisition — Read what the Inquisition actually entailed (hint: it was not about matador hats).
The Enola Gay — Read about the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Japan.
New York Times Review — This New York Times review of a 2001 Billy Collins collection that reprinted "The History Teacher" quotes and analyzes the poem's impact at length.
1Trying to protect his students' innocence
2he told them the Ice Age was really just
3the Chilly Age, a period of a million years
4when everyone had to wear sweaters.
5And the Stone Age became the Gravel Age,
6named after the long driveways of the time.
7The Spanish Inquisition was nothing more
8than an outbreak of questions such as
9"How far is it from here to Madrid?"
10"What do you call the matador's hat?"
11The War of the Roses took place in a garden,
12and the Enola Gay dropped one tiny atom
14The children would leave his classroom
15for the playground to torment the weak
16and the smart,
17mussing up their hair and breaking their glasses,
18while he gathered up his notes and walked home
19past flower beds and white picket fences,
20wondering if they would believe that soldiers
21in the Boer War told long, rambling stories
22designed to make the enemy nod off.