Once upon a Time by Subhadra Jayaraman

Imagine sitting through hours and hours of droning lectures, ears buzzing, eyes glazed, trying to focus on what happened once upon a time in Rome or Indonesia. You wonder if you were Idi Amin in your previous birth, and if these history lessons are actually atonement for your sins. And the bell finally rings, and you feel a sudden surge of life, bolt outside the door, and run for your life. You rush home, kick off your shoes and ask your mother for snacks and find your grandma telling you that once upon a time when she was a child, she would help herself instead of asking her mom for things. And once upon a time she was a nice obedient girl who didn’t wear knee length skirts to school. It is all you can do not to faint in horror or scream in agony. Please, enough with the once upon a time snooze fests. Spare us the anguish of treaties, spare us the stupid wars and statues, spare us the supposedly fascinating stories of building drains and planting corn.

No wonder learning history was a painful experience. Like an icepick lobotomy or having your wisdom teeth pulled out when you’re perfectly cognizant. Because we had to memorize dates, numbers, names, places, and previous names of the same places. It was never a charming story; it was always a textbook. And reading from a textbook is seldom voluntary. Learn from history, they said. When I was in school, I did learn from history. I learnt English. I learnt how to sleep with my eyes open. I learnt how to yawn with my mouth closed. I learnt how to nod on autopilot. In all other lessons, there was some emotion. “Ugh!” was math. “Wow!” was biology. “My tongue doesn’t move that way” was Sanskrit. “Please, stop!” was chemistry. Even physical education had emotions, we were just too out of breath to voice them out. But history – history was just dead, blank, empty. Once I even thought I would get up at the end of the history period as a ghost and leave my live body behind. We checked each other’s heads for gray hair. We went to CPR courses just to save our classmates’ lives after a history class – lest they pass peacefully in their dull slumbers.

Today, I love history. I am truly fascinated by it. That is because I have ditched the textbooks and started learning from books of nonfiction and historical fiction instead. And most importantly, of my own accord. History is important. But the history taught in schools is hideous and must be banned. Today I can read whatever I want from history. In school we are taught what our country and our board of education wanted us to read and remember and vomit in examinations.

Maybe I would have liked it better in school if they hadn’t droned on about the 6th century BC, but told us instead about the hilarious Medes-Lydian war in Asia Minor, where both parties ended the 6-year-long war in a peace treaty because they witnessed a solar eclipse for the first time, were terrified, and just stopped fighting. Maybe I would have listened to the achievements of the Roman Empire if I had known that Emperor Claudius, a humorous man, issued a decree officially allowing flatulence at Roman dinner tables, because one of his men nearly died by holding it in due to shame. And maybe I would have paid attention to US presidents if I had known that Andrew Jackson’s pet parrot unleashed a string of profanities so loudly and considerably, that it had to be removed from his funeral proceedings.

History is a beautiful medley of stories, humor, art, bloodshed, conquests, diseases, excavations, dinosaurs, and buried treasures. It is not to be studied like mathematical derivations of Fourier transforms that no one ever uses after school. It is to be enjoyed like the beautiful poetic representation it is, because we all indeed have a lot to learn from history. And maybe one day we can tell our historically savvy grandkids, that once upon a time we learnt the names of battles from within a stuffy classroom, and managed to survive.


  1. Loved reading this and what you have said is so true! I have found my love for history very recently only – when there is no examination and I know I can pick what I want to learn.. school history was terrible.


  2. Once upon a time, i scored most in ‘History’ by just mugging up the content like the year, the king and kingdom name – all because i just liked the teacher for no specific reason!! Even now i don’t have a grip of it..


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