The first stanza of "The History Teacher" introduces the poem's central conceit: the title character takes upsetting or violent events from history and describes them for his students in much more child-friendly, sugarcoated terms. In this first example, the history teacher re-titles the Ice Age as "the Chilly Age," stripping away the environmental devastation of the era and its detrimental effects on human life so that it seems only to have forced people to wear warm clothing.
From the first line of the poem, the history teacher's motivation is made explicit: he is "trying to protect his students' innocence" (line 1). The history teacher seems to believe that if he shields them from the unhappiness of the long-ago past, they can then remain blissfully unaware of all human suffering. While he may make the Ice Age more conceptually accessible to young students (although his students' age is never specified, it seems from their "playground" use that they are likely elementary or middle school students) by connecting the era to the familiar experience of a chilly day, the history teacher completely misrepresents the facts and reality of history.
This first stanza also establishes the poem's consistent absence of metrical regularity or rhyme scheme. Collins writes in blank verse, and the first stanza is a single sentence featuring enjambment that separates each line from the next. The enjambment emphasizes the reveals of the pair of punch lines in the stanza, with line breaks serving as momentary drum rolls before the discoveries of what name the history teacher used ("the Chilly Age," line 2) and how he described this era (the sweater-wearing in line 4).
Despite the poem's ultimately dark moral, the opening lines also establish a wry sense of knowing humor: the reader is invited to laugh at the history teacher's wacky creativity in the classroom but also to laugh at the kids who are presumably duped by this rather lame, pun-based historical explanation. At the same time, how would the history teacher's students know any better without previous exposure to the truth? From the poem's first lines, Collins positions the reader as an educated onlooker to the miseducation of a classroom of "innocent" students.
The fleeting use of assonance and consonance in the words "million" and "Chilly" in line 2 serve to accentuate the history teacher's attempts to make his lessons palatable and innocent. The presence of such sonic devices throughout the poem suggests the history teacher's attempts to pepper his lies with sing-song, catchy phrases.