Tag Archives: Questioning

“No, I Didn’t Know George Washington”: Answers to those “Dumb” Questions before School Starts

Whoever said “There are no stupid questions” never had a classroom full of them.

Especially at the elementary level, the post-summer amnesia produces a litany of questions that should seem obvious. 

In fact, you probably answered them all last year.  Guess what?  You’ll be answering them again this year, too. 

Over the years, I collected a lot of these questions, pored over them, wondered about their recurrent nature, and then drank myself into a stupor until the questions drowned in gin.  They’re tough little buggers.

In order to save me some time this year—as well as give some advice on how to handle these questions—I’ve come up with the most common questions that have arisen, along with the answers, so that at least we can be prepared once school starts:










“Who was the first slave?” – I get this one a lot, especially among kids who can trace their ancestry to enslaved persons down South and would like a more complete family tree.  We don’t know the name of the first slave, although in Paleolithic communication a slave could just as easily been anyone forced to do work, like a “husband” or “boyfriend.” (Just kidding.)










“Martin Luther King was President, right?” – Always occurring either around MLK’s mid-January break or during Black History Month in February.  Thanks to the other holidays around the same time, a lot of kids just assume that Martin Luther King, Jr. was a President simply because he’s famous for doing important things.  No, MLK was never President: would Barack Obama’s election have been such a big deal if he was?  Usually that deflates the issue right there.










“Did you know George Washington?” – a huge obstacle to overcome is a child’s lack of understanding of historical time, especially when you explain it a hundred times before.  It still doesn’t get into their heads: George Washington died in 1799.  I was born in 1977, which is almost 200 years after his death, therefore…(cue the confused look on the kid’s face.)  Oh well, you could just mess with the kid, “Sure I knew him…bought three slaves from him once, and what a bargain!” (Cue the parent calling the principal.)








“Did {insert dead white male here} die?” – this is slightly similar to the previous question.  Assume anyone within striking distance of Washington (Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, the three slaves I bought from Washington) are already dead.  Most of history’s bad guys, with the exception of Osama bin-Laden (or so we’re told), Fidel Castro (ditto) and Muammar Qadafi—dead.  For parochial school kids: saints and martyrs are dead (martyrs by definition), as well as every pope but the current one (again, by design).   For further point of reference, take any wall chart of the Presidents of the United States.  Now circle numbers 39, 41, 42, 43 and 44.  The rest are all dead. 










“What was the first war?” – As common and pointless a question as “Who was the first slave?”  Without a documented record of the event, the question is really meaningless.  Therefore, make up a plausible story: It was probably when Gak wanted more mammoth meat than Urg, so he hit him over the head with a club and took the rest of the carcass.  This explains pretty much all wars, from Gak and Urg to World War II (even Iraq, if you substitute mammoth meat for millions of barrels of sweet, sweet crude.)






“Did they have machine guns/bazookas/missiles in the {insert pre-20th century war}?” – ridiculous, but fun to think about.  Imagine the sight of British redcoats running for their lives at the sight of a minuteman raining fire with a Browning machine gun.  Obviously, this plays into the problem of historical time.  Timelines showing different stages of weapons development can help–good luck explaining that to the AP.  Or you can rationalize: do you think the Hundred Years’ War, the Thirty Years’ War, even the Seven Years’ War would’ve lasted so long with modern weapons?  One strafe of napalm over northern New York would’ve had the Iroquois running for the British lines in no time flat.

Now we’re really mostly kidding (mostly).  As teachers, it is in the best interests of a child to answer their questions as honestly and directly as possible–or at least direct them to where they can find the answer.  To whit, some of the questions mentioned today are, at least in a child’s mind, perfectly legitimate.  For example, it makes sense to figure out when humans decided to enslave other humans, or the first time people used homicidal violence to solve problems.

Yet sometimes the lesson has to go on.  These questions are, more often than not, used to waste your time.  Make sure to answer the question ONCE, then enforce some rules if they try it again.  Often, I find that the more sarcastic and convoluted the answer, the more confused the kid is.  He’ll never even think of asking that question again.

Even so, I know I’ll be getting these, so let’s be prepared.  If you have any other stories/tips about the questions you always get and always seem ridiculous, let us know.  We’d love to share them.

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