Today, in History Class


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I remember at one point hearing an activist in a documentary say they could imagine history classes teaching about the current state of affairs and students being horrified that things like slaughterhouses ever existed. I liked the idea, so I started working on one version of how that might look.

Cover Photo by Jessica Furtney on Unsplash

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Today, in Hisotry Class

“Can anyone tell me what this word means?”

Claire looked up from doodling vines in her sketchbook and blinked at the screen. The word 'VEGANISM' stared back at her in bold letters and, like the rest of the class, she didn't have any clue what it could mean.

Ari Keller's cow eyes flicked around the room, large and brown and taking in everything with a kind of gentle amusement. “No?” he asked with a faint smile. “No one? How about this one?”

The screen changed, this time giving the class the word 'CARNISM' to ponder.

Carnism, Claire thought, turning the word this way and that in her head, trying to see it from an angle that would make her understand it. Well, '-ism' usually denotes some kind of belief system... There are carnivores but that just means an animal who only eats meat, so... that's probably not it.

It was a simple, likely superfluous connection in the words (right?) but already there was a gnawing sense of unease turning tight circles behind her ribcage. She couldn't explain it, but she had that feeling people often do when they encounter something they know is going to change how they see things, whether they like it or not. She set her pencil down.

“Let's start with the easy one,” Keller began, changing the slide back before walking slowly to one side of the platform. He always paced when he went into lecture-mode. “Donald Watson was a co-founder of the Vegan Society in England. He and his wife coined the term 'vegan' way back in 1944, and 'veganism' quickly became the word for the philosophy that animals – dogs, cats, pigs, horses, cows, chickens, deer, etc., etc. – should not be thought of as tools and commodities for use by humans, but instead treated as individuals who were in possession of their own lives and who wanted those lives to continue.”

A few murmurs rippled through the classroom, some of them sounding like they were trying to pronounce a question mark. Violet leaned over so their dreadlocks brushed Claire's arm and whispered, “They really needed a word for that?” to which Claire shrugged and mouthed, 'I guess'.

Keller continued, “Now, some of you might know this already, but we didn't always eat the way we do today. In fact, just a few generations ago, the human diet looked vastly different than the one we all grew up with.”

Claire cocked her head at the apparent non-sequitur while Erin piped up from their trademark middle-of-the-room seat. “What'd they eat – rocks?”

It wasn't funny, but people laughed anyway. They stopped when they realized Keller wasn't smiling.

The slide changed without another word and Claire pressed a hand over her mouth as Violet jumped beside her, hissing 'Shit!' before looking around the class, trying to confirm that everyone else was seeing the same thing.

It was hard to make sense of the image for a moment, but it finally clicked that they were looking at part of a ribcage. Small white bones poked through skin soaked in what Claire realized, with no small stab of nausea, was barbecue sauce. The next slide showed the cleanly severed head of a pig, which had apparently been roasted whole and set on a plate of salad. The third displayed the lifeless bodies of dogs being dismembered for the carts of street vendors. The fourth and fifth showed them places that looked a little like early versions of the Green Star Cafe, all packed with families, all strung with adverts for pieces of animal's bodies. The final two slides were covered in what looked to be government guidelines. They had old spellings (like 'milk' instead of 'mylk'), and a few other names that Claire didn't recognize, but they all casually recommended consuming animals and that was really all she needed to know.

“These,” Keller said after allowing several seconds of silence, “would have all been common images if you had grown up in, say, the 1900s or the early 2000s. Now, the cruelty of this seems obvious to us today, but, as we've already discussed, the past was a pretty rocky time in a lot of ways. Some psychologists and historians attribute many of the other long-standing issues throughout our history to the concept of 'speciesism', which essentially states that discrimination is justified on the basis on species. It's likely that this concept is what enabled the second word I showed you.' He changed the slide. “Carnism. Does anyone have a guess as to what this word might mean now?”

Slowly, from the front row, a girl by the name of Keperly raised her thin, graphite-smudged hand. Keperly was essentially Claire's opposite – she was pale and bookish and introverted and her bright blue eyes were always hidden behind her glasses. She kept her dark hair up in a ponytail, and Claire had pretty much been head-over-heels for her from the first moment they met.

“Miss Miller?” Keller said, inclining his head in her direction.

“Well, um...” Keperly cleared her throat and tried again. “I'd imagine that the word 'carnism' was created after the word 'veganism'. I-it probably came about because people on the outside needed to give a name to the dominant culture or the... the dominate belief system they were fighting against.”

“Very good. And how would you describe that culture, that belief system?”

Claire saw Keperly shift in her chair, uncomfortable with being the center of attention. Knowing her, she'd probably read all about this well before then. She pushed the words out with considerable effort. “The belief that other species exist for use by humans.”

“Very good,” Keller said, then appeared to re-think his phrasing. “That was a solid explanation, I mean. Now....”

He moved away to resume his slow, deliberate pacing and Keperly threw a glance up to Claire's row, smiling when she saw her. I did it, I spoke up. Claire grinned back, flashing a peace sign before refocusing on Keller.

“Since we're starting this new section, I want to give you all some historical context for the issues we'll be discussing. I'm going to show you a documentary that was made somewhere around the year 2017. It's about an hour long. This may be very disturbing to some of you – I completely understand if you need to leave at any point – but I hope this will help you get a grasp of some of the social tensions of the time and just how dangerous it could be to speak out against this system early on.”

Claire folded her hands on the table in front of her. A quick scan of the room showed her that Sarah was spinning her bracelet around her wrist like she often did when she was nervous. Keperly looked to be bouncing her leg while a friend of theirs, Thomas, had removed his earclips. Everyone was quiet now. Focused. Richard had even put his makeup away for the time being. No one was quite sure what to expect, but Claire felt pretty confident she'd never read those old books assigned to her in English class the same way again.

~ * ~

Keller's ten-minute wrap-up after the film went by in a blur. History was the last class of Claire's day and moments like these made her beyond grateful for that simple fact. She left feeling dizzy, like the rug had been pulled out from under her even though nothing had actually changed but her perception of the past. She supposed this happened to anyone who really studied history – something was bound to take the shine off of it eventually – but it had never happened to her before and she wasn't quite sure what to do now that it had.

Alan Carter caught up to her in the hall just outside the heavy wooden doors that separated the classroom from the rest of the world. They reminded Claire of the pale, metal-plated hospital doors they'd seen so much of over the last hour. Just another image she was unlikely to forget about.

“You too, huh?” he asked, stepping up beside her.

She sighed. “Yeah, kinda.”

“Mind if I ask where you're headed?”

“Not really. Why?”

Alan shifted to hold his books across his chest. At 6'5”, he towered over her but the slightly awkward way he carried himself kept his height from being anything near intimidating. “This is my last class, so I've been trying to catch some of the people who looked kinda... shell-shocked so we could maybe go somewhere else for a little while. Have a therapy session in the park or something.” He paused to laugh, a little huff of a sound. “It's cool if not, but you looked a little off-balance, so I wanted to ask.”

Claire exhaled through her teeth, considering. Part of her wanted to go somewhere dark and quiet to process everything – somewhere she could scream if she needed to – but another part reminded her that human contact might help take the sting out of some of the information. At least then she wouldn't be alone for any other major revelations that were still out there. Support systems never hurt to have and if her quick scan through the e-text was accurate, this was a long section.

She searched the crowd for Keperly. It would probably be good for the both of them to show up, but it would be better if Claire didn't spring a meeting on her out of the blue.

“Morrison Park?” she asked. “I have to snag my girlfriend, but we can meet you guys in about half an hour, if that's cool.”

Alan grinned, some of the tension going out of his shoulders. “Sure. We'll be lookin' for you.”

~ * ~

“I just can't get my head around this,” Sarah said, staring down at her e-text. She was lying in a graceless sprawl on the grass, covered in the thick shade of a massive tree. “I mean, why would people do this? Why would they make their kids do this?”

“Follow the money,” Claire offered from across the circle. She'd been chipping away at a creative writing piece for the first hour or so but had set it down in favor of not feeling the urge to throw it into the nearest fire she could find. “People aren't stupid, but if you don't give them all the information, then they can only act according to what they know. I don't think anyone back then was really out to hurt anyone else. They just didn't have the information.”

“Yeah, but still...” She trailed off, clicking to the next page. “There was just so much, you know? Like, it looks like this stuff was everywhere – in ads, in media, and there were byproducts in just about everything...” She made a small, useless gesture with her hands, tossing them up to her shoulders before grabbing her hinged e-reader again with a sigh.

Keperly had been nodding, but she paused once Sarah gave up trying to voice her disbelief. She lifted her pencil from the rough paper of her sketchbook. “This section's going to be frustrating,” she said, then caught her lower lip between her teeth for a few seconds. “I kinda fell down this historical rabbit hole a while ago and... if what I've read before is accurate, then most of society back then was really geared toward carnism – medicine, the schools, the legal system, even big branches of government.” She tapped her pencil against the paper, leaving a small dot on the page. “I-I can't imagine living back then. It must have been exhausting for activists early on. You'd be fighting at just about every turn, even with your own family.”

Alan pulled his knees up and wrapped his arms around them. He grabbed a small handful of crunchy chickpeas from the container Richard had brought along and became very interested in pushing them around in his palm. “I knew someone once who was from a family of butchers way back when,” he said.

“Butchers?” Richard repeated, raising an eyebrow.

“Yeah. Like... they actually cut up the bodies. I mean, my friend was against it obviously, but we were talking once and they pointed out that without all the fighting and all the history, we might not have gotten to where we are right now.” He paused like he wasn't quite sure where to go from there, then settled for shrugging with one shoulder and throwing a chickpea into his mouth. “So that's a little brighter perspective, I guess.”

Things were quiet for a few minutes after that, everyone disappearing into their own thoughts again. Alan watched the clouds while Richard fussed with his vlogging camera and Thomas scratched the sound of his thoughts down on staff paper. Sarah was reading ahead – something Claire had never seen her do before – and looking more and more distressed as the minutes passed. Between them, Keperly was roughing in the lines for what looked to be a poster of some sort. Claire had wanted to ask about it, ask her how she was feeling now, but the way the woman was sketching told her everything.

Ordinarily, when Keperly drew, it was soft and fluid, like watching a time lapse of water cutting through rock. Now, her lines were quick and jagged, more like ice crystals. Claire waited until she lifted her pencil again before wrapping an arm around her shoulders. Keperly tensed for a moment, then fell against her side and made no move to sit back up.

“Got ya, girl,” Claire said, hugging her a little tighter.

“Thank you,” Keperly murmured, covering Claire's left hand with her right. “A lot happened today.”

The odd thing was, she was right. It was like nothing had happened and everything had happened. The world felt different. The colors around her looked brighter somehow, like they needed to be noticed. Claire remembered feeling something similar when she first learned about things like slavery and Hitler's holocaust, but the space of time between then and now had given her at least some semblance of a buffer. This felt much closer, different... raw, somehow – like an open wound. Now the knowledge was in her and she had no choice but to stitch her skin back together over it and carry it with her, like shrapnel from a war she was never a part of.

Eventually, Thomas removed an earclip and set his pen down. “Well, I'm getting fuck-all done, so I'll just ask: How the hell do you process this?” He glanced around, directing the question to no one in particular. “Our great-great-great-grandparents used to eat animal secretions and corpses and not think a single thing of it just because that's what everybody else was doing.”

“It wasn't just food, either,” Sarah informed them without looking up. “Apparently it was law for a long time in some places that anything that was used by humans had to be tested on animals first.”

Richard turned the small camera he was always carrying toward her, but Claire couldn't tell if he was actually recording or not. “Tested how?” he asked, like he was dreading the answer.

Sarah didn't respond right away. After a few seconds, she sighed and looked up at the branches overhead before bringing her gaze back to the rest of them. “Read this,” she said, passing the e-text to Richard. “Take it before I punch something. Top of the left-hand page.”

Richard didn't read the passage aloud. Instead he left them sitting there in silence for around two minutes before clicking his tongue. “I'm gonna need a drink after this,” he said, handing the readers over to Thomas, who punctuated each fact with more profanity than was strictly necessary before tossing the readers to Alan as though they'd burned him.

The text made its way to Claire and Keperly, who huddled together and skimmed as much as they reasonably could – Claire because her stomach already hurt and Keperly because she'd come across the information before and didn't care to read it all again.

“I really don't know what to say.” Claire handed the readers back to Sarah. As soon as her hand was empty, she tossed it into the air. “Like, what the actual hell?”

“I know!” Sarah chirped in equal disbelief before laughing in that way people did when they needed to react but they didn't know how, so they settled for laughter. She pushed the heel of her hand over one eye, glaring at the back of her e-text with the other. “This is gonna be a rough section,” she said around a sigh. “My book's supposed to be set in the early 2000s – I don't want to have to re-write it all in this time period.”

A small, almost inaudible murmur of sympathy wove its way through the group. This semester was all but guaranteed to effect their artistic sides as well. Claire had already been wondering if poetry would help, and with as much as Richard vlogged, some facts where sure to slip out to his audience. Alan probably had even more appreciation for his ingredients now and if nothing else, she was pretty sure Thomas could get an entire album out of this information.

As the sun marched toward the horizon, Richard finally sighed like he forcing everything negative out of his head for the time being and pushed himself to his feet.

“I don't know about you divas,” he said, “but I'm starving.”

~ * ~

Aunt June's was small diner-style place near campus. It usually saw most of its traffic around finals week, when everyone was vainly attempting to cram a semester's worth of knowledge into their skulls all at once. As a result, the tables were mostly empty.

Thomas promptly flung himself onto the weathered bench attached to one of the picnic tables with a view of the tree-covered hill across the parking lot. Claire and the others filed in around him, scanning menus and arguing over whether or not 'breakfast for dinner' was an appropriate response to a bad day.

Claire and Keperly, being firmly in favor of breakfast for dinner, quickly jumped into the debate. No one was talking about class anymore and at least everyone seemed to be in favor of that.

Eventually, a consensus was reached, orders were placed, and everyone's attention turned to tripping each other up as much as humanly possible while playing cards on their tablets.

Claire knew the round was over as soon as the words 'Hey, look at this' left Sarah's mouth.

Thomas leaned over his tablet, whining, “Don't...”

“I'm gonna do it,” Sarah answered with a wolfish grin.

“Please, don't – my ego needs this!” He was interrupted by the tinny 'winner' chime from the other side of the table, and immediately continued with, “Oh, you spoon!”

Sarah spat out the water she'd sipped as a victory swig and pressed her forehead against the table, giggling hard enough to rattle the silverware. Richard crushed Thomas in a 'Loser's Bear Hug' while Alan tried to make sure Sarah could stop laughing long enough to take a proper breath. She started to calm down but then snorted and started cackling again.

Things settled down properly once their food arrived. Keperly had gone slightly pink from laughing so hard and Claire's cheeks hurt from grinning, but the world felt a little more like the one she'd woken up in that morning – full of easy conversations and good food and friends who didn't mind looking ridiculous with each other.

The diner's floodlights engulfed them in a bubble, chasing the dusk to the edge of the tables and keeping it there while they ate and laughed and talked. Claire set her fork down to take a sip of her tea and found herself staring at the rest of the table.

Richard was playfully tossing a few of his fries across the table at Alan, who was caught between trying to look annoyed and laughing as he blocked the onslaught of potatoes with an empty bowl. Sarah was watching them out of the corner of her eye, absently dipping lentil loaf into her mashed potatoes while Thomas demolished an overstuffed sandwich, occasionally surfacing to ramble about a show a friend of his would be playing next weekend.

“I just realized something.” Keperly's voice snapped Claire out of her own head and back to the cool spring night around them. “We would have been revolutionaries. If w-we'd been alive back then, I mean.”

Claire smiled. “You think so?” she asked, folding her arms on the table. Their plates sat between them, forming a small recycled-paper bridge – Keperly's banana pancakes and Claire's tofu scramble and avocado toast.

“Yeah. Like...” Keperly folded her hands around each other like she often did when she was thinking. “I can't imagine how it must have been for people back then, especially if people really knew who you were and someone didn't want you talking. There are some real horror stories. But I like to think we still would have done something.”

“We're all too stubborn not to,” Claire said, sitting up a little straighter and feeling just the slightest bit proud when she realized it was probably true.

At the other end of the table, Richard tilted his head at them. The diner's lights caught the shimmer in his eye-shadow. “Who's too stubborn to what now?”

“Us,” Keperly said. “If we'd been around back then, we'd all be too stubborn to just let things stay the way they were.”

Richard nodded, making a quiet humming sound. “Wouldn't surprise me a bit, especially you two. 'Course, if you're gonna make any kind of difference, I think you've got to be a little stubborn.”

“Well, nothing gets done otherwise.” Thomas stole a fry off of Richard's plate. “Activists and artists and revolutionaries build better worlds – that's kind of just how things work. The people in power get stupid about something, and the activists come out of the woodwork to hit 'em over the head with a pipe until they learn. Figuratively speaking.”

Alan was grinning. “Sure. But apparently, the late 1990s and early 2000s had so many protests. About everything. Even Keller says that was kind of the tipping point for a lot of social justice issues. Pipes were probably needed.”

“I'm just glad we're living on the other side of all that,” Sarah said, staring at her phone. “I mean, it's not perfect here, but I don't think it's anything like what it was back then. I'd be pretty surprised if it was, at least.”

Claire found herself nodding. Human kind had been through some very dark times, but a lot of good had come out of the turmoil that was their shared history. They could vote, they could own things, they could work any job they was qualified for, they could wear what they wanted, live where they wanted, marry the person/s they wanted a life with...

This was a world that citizens made. Just good, everyday people of all stripes working with activists and institutions to make things better for everyone, often by slow steps and hard-fought victories. Some worked their whole lives because they believed in a cause that much. And, not for the first time, Claire wished she could thank them all for what they'd done.

It wasn't a perfect world by any means, but it was a pretty damn good one.

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