I was an intern teacher in 1973 — age, 23. At the end of my first day in front of a room full of high school students, I distributed three index cards to each kid.
“Please, take a minute,” I directed, “to write down the names of three people you think were most important in the history of the United States. Put one name on each card and hand the cards to me as you leave.”
That night, I sorted the index cards according to their historical timeline. I noted, from more than 100 responses, how many times names were repeated. After organizing the input, I prepared my next day’s lesson.
“Today,” I told the class, “I am going to summarize the history of the United States of America based on the guidance you provided me.” Visibly referring to the index cards, I spoke about George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and many others. I spent time on the contributions and context of each person in direct proportion to the number of times a person appeared in the stack of index cards.
I told these students a few times that my talk intentionally emphasized what was important according to their input. I spent the most time talking about Lincoln and Washington. In the top five amount of time, I spoke about Jackie Robinson.
In my 1973 classroom, the name of the player who broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier appeared on about 25 percent of the students’ submissions of people most important in American history. Would it surprise anyone to hear that this fledgling teacher with a clever teaching gimmick was the only Caucasian in that inner city Philadelphia classroom?
I could tell from the far-from-classic range of names on all the cards that some kids were riffing on this teaching exercise. Most of those kids were riffing sincerely. I learned in that classroom that Jackie Robinson actually and symbolically did more to advance the American experiment than almost any other American.
Lily white me knew about Jackie Robinson, but I didn’t know in my heartened soul about Jackie Robinson. Decades and much progress later, every American can always do well by recharging his or her understanding of America’s best efforts “to form a more perfect union.”
The Jackie Robinson story travels hand in hand with the courageous vision and leadership of Brooklyn Dodgers co-owner Branch Rickey, as well as the loving partnership with wife Rachel Robinson (still active 60 years after her husband played Major League Baseball from 1947 to 1956).
Untold numbers of people played inside and outside this exemplary game change in the myriad ways that change transforms people of every stripe. Baseball — the American Pastime — is still the iconic American sport. Race is still the iconic American issue.
See the movie “42.” The biopic about Jackie Robinson, playing in theaters now, is a good film — solid but ordinary Hollywood filmmaking. It can’t avoid having several standout moments radiating from its “based on a true story” foundation.
I am not writing a movie review here. Regardless, see the film “42.” (That number on Jackie Robinson’s uniform is the only number retired from further use in all of Major League Baseball.) See “42,” not because it’s a satisfying two hours at the movies. See it because you can hardly know too well how important Jackie Robinson is in American History.
Chuck Jaffee lives in Nevada City.