Many (many) years ago, I was a young, bright-eyed History undergraduate with a spring in my step and a certainty in my mind about what History really was. History was the story of the great events that have shaped our planet, a tale of plague, of war, of discovery, of great risk and reward and of the great leaders who navigated their people through the treacherous waters of time. What a fool I was.
Later, when I was training to be a teacher, I travelled with a group of Year 9 students from Yorkshire to France and Belgium to see the battlefields of World War One. We saw the trenches and the museums and we stood in the cemeteries, the final resting places of thousands and thousands of young men who were killed in the mud. I stood in front of the gravestone of a young man called Harold Rainbow and I remember thinking ‘what an unusual name. I wonder what he was like…?’. In that moment I realised that everything I thought I knew about History was wrong. I had been looking at the past from the wrong end of the telescope. The History we need to know isn’t the tale of great leaders, it is the story of the little people. Of Harold. Of ourselves.
In the intervening years I have taught some great events in my classrooms. The fall of the Roman Empire, the Battle of Hastings, the Black Death, the French Revolution, the World Wars. And in all of these stories, I have tried to bring forward the little people, to tell the story of how they behaved in tumultuous times and how their actions can inspire us today.
The Athenian soldier Pheidippides ran 140 miles from Athens to Sparta and helped save the city from the Persians. The people of the village of Eyam in England refused to allow anyone in or out of their village in 1348 because they knew the great plague was rife there, thus saving the lives of countless people in the neighbouring villages.
When the French King treacherously tried to escape Paris in 1791 to join the invading Austrian forces, he was prevented from doing so not by a General or a politician, but by the local postman. Harriet Tubman, an escaped slave risked her life by returning to the slave owning states of the south to rescue other slaves, creating a network of escape routes and helping thousands of slaves to escape. These are the tales of the little people.
Today we are living through a moment of history and yet again it is the turn of the little people to truly guide events. Whilst our leaders do their best, some better than others, to find solutions to the problems we face, it is to the health workers, the delivery men and women, the supermarket staff that we turn to at this time. The little people who are keeping our societies running in an orderly manner are the true heroes in this historic scene but no doubt when the history books are written their tale will be a minor footnote.
Right now, we are all the ‘little people’. Our actions will define this current experience for those around us, how we behave throughout this isolation will help to create the history of these events for future generations.
As so often, it is important to return one of our school values, kindness. In our own ways each one of us is struggling to come to terms with this giant historical event which has paralysed the globe. Let us respond with kindness and compassion so that the history books are able to record that the little people did well.