Living history

Deadlock election provides rare lesson for students

By Anand Vaishnav, Globe Staff, 11/9/2000

As the nation held its breath yesterday awaiting results from the unresolved presidential election, at least one group of people jumped at the chance to learn from it: history teachers.

Teachers live for momentous events like the extra-innings presidential race - unexpected current events that inject life into dry subjects like the Electoral College and the oft-heard importance of voting.

It's called a ''teachable moment,'' an unexpected opening that ignites a relevant discussion. Many educators in the Boston area were salivating at the chance to discuss history - not as someone had written it on the pages of a dusty textbook, but as people were making it, live on television.

''It's the exact chemistry of kids and moment that couldn't be better,'' said Richard Savage, a history teacher at East Boston High School. ''I'm in my 34th year, and this is as good as it gets. It's magic.''

Speaking to his American history students, Savage said he was reminded of the face-off between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960, when he was 15 years old and stayed up until the wee hours to see who won. Forty years later, many of his students did the same thing.

''Yesterday night, I was really sleepy. But I said I couldn't go to sleep and let history go by,'' senior Sugey Terrero said. ''I turned on the TV [in the morning] and said, `Oh, my God, nobody won!'''

The classroom talk shifted to the worthiness of the Electoral College, how elections really could turn on handfuls of votes, and how the closeness of the popular vote could shackle the new president, leaving him with no mandate.

''Whoever it is, the country's going to be torn,'' junior John Huttunen said.

Even the students seemed somewhat surprised at their own interest.

''When we were young, we really didn't care about elections,'' senior Rosa Felix said. ''Now that we're getting older, that we're getting ready to vote, we care.''

The current generation of high school students has had no shortage of great moments in American history to take to class. The Persian Gulf War erupted when they were in elementary school, followed by President Clinton's election, followed by his impeachment, and now the Bush-Gore dead heat.

History teachers yesterday sent students scurrying to Web sites for updates and asking them to remember past constitutional and civics lessons.

Events such as this ''create a relevance to history that perhaps no other event could do,'' said Sheldon Obelsky, a history teacher at Arlington High School. ''And it has an impact on them.''