I can’t remember if I loved history before I had Mr. Chesko in eighth grade Pennsylvania history or if it was his unique brand of teaching that made me love history. It doesn’t matter, though. If I had walked into his classroom already loving history, I left it with an absolute passion for it.
I must admit that I was fairly intimidated by Mr. Chesko at first–well, maybe throughout my entire tenure at Linesville High School. You see, he didn’t put up with anybody’s tomfoolery, shenanigans, or monkeyshines, least of all mine. Which was good, because I was not always a very nice little girl at age 14. But I always knew where I stood with Mr. Chesko.
When he first began teaching at Linesville, I used to hear some of the kids call him “Chico”, which I guess was a play off his last name. Whereas I never called our band director anything but “Touch” (even, shamefully, to his face), I could not imagine calling Mr. Chesko anything but ‘Mr. Chesko’, and if he were sitting here beside me right now, I’d still call him ‘Mr. Chesko’. You see, he did not encourage familiarity. He was not the type of teacher you could walk up to and make ridiculous demands of–like Touch. Oh, no. You did not make demands of Mr. Chesko.
And as a veteran eighth grade teacher, I can tell you that this is exactly as it should be.
So what was so special about Mr. Chesko? For one, he didn’t sit behind his desk and assign a chapter in the book to read and the questions at the end to complete and hand in before the end of the period, even if he had a game to coach that night and a series of plays to put together beforehand. In fact, I never remember him sitting behind his desk–he was always moving, even if he was tired because he was up all night with a newborn baby. Nor did he fling down with a sanctimonious fury that Rand McNally and expect us on the first try to point to Valley Forge, even if we should have known it was somewhere near Philadelphia. Neither did he force us to memorize speeches, dates, or obscure facts about the Revolutionary War and then chide us about our lack of knowledge when we didn’t get it right. Instead, he inspired us to learn about the substance of those speeches, the significance of those dates and timelines, and the interlacing of facts–the causes and effects of history–all by painting pictures with words, maps, and whatever other media he had on hand. He taught us about the events that shaped our history–our history. He reinforced his stories by asking us questions that had us on the edges of our seats, begging him to call on us, with questions that began with, “How do you think …?” And “What do you suppose it was like …?” Or “I wonder how …” He compelled us to become curious by default.
At once, learning our history was thrilling. It was messy, it was gory, and it was fascinating.
Which brings me to the fences.
One of our assignments was to build a series of fences–fences that one would have encountered in pre-Colonial, Colonial, and post-Revolutionary Pennsylvania. Split-railed mortised, split-railed snake, log fences, stone fences–we were to build models of these fences, and we would be graded upon the historical accuracy of our creations.
I heard some kids grumbling about how fences had nothing to do with Pennsylvania history and that this was a dumb assignment. Those were the kids who didn’t have a recently retired father at home itching to build something, one who also had a penchant for cabinet making and a passion for history that surpassed even his daughter’s. But I knew that Mr. Chesko was wily enough to figure out within seconds of seeing me walk into his classroom with my arms full of fences whether or not my dad had a hand in the building, so I told my dad to chill (no, I really didn’t but it was something along those lines), and I made the fences myself. As a consolation prize, however, I let him help my friend Dede with her fences, much to Dede’s delight. My dad and Dede worked all night on her fences while I furiously flipped through encyclopedia pages to find just the right images to replicate in order to make my fences historically perfect. To do anything less would have demonstrated a deep disrespect for the unique nature of the assignment.
So what did all of this fence-making have to do with my passion for history and my reverence for Mr. Chesko? While making those fences (with my dad hovering over my shoulder giving me mortising tips), I thought about how folks during the Colonial period didn’t have power tools and had to split logs into rails with an ax. I wondered about how farmers in the Colonial period knew where their land ended and their neighbor’s began. I thought about how long it must have taken the Colonial surveyor to determine the farmer’s property lines without the benefit of modern maps. I thought about how, while the men in the community were splitting rails to divvy up their properties, their children were kept busy placing the split rails in the snake pattern formation. I wagered that, at the very least, the Colonial wives, with their aproned skirts waving in the wind, were stirring a big iron pot of something stew-like over a huge fire because their men would certainly be hungry after all that rail splitting. That got me wondering what kinds of vittles the Colonial folks ate–was it all rabbit and squirrel with the occasional deer thrown in? And how did they keep all that meat fresh without modern refrigeration? I thought, and I wondered.
And that, my dear friends, is how you teach American history by asking your students to build fences. Weird, huh?
Mr. Chesko, you taught and coached two generations of western Crawford County kids how to win and lose graciously, how to build character through sportsmanship and academics, you helped those two generations grow into productive and active members of the community, you coached a girls’ basketball team that brought home the first-ever state championship to the little town of Linesville, and best of all–for me–you taught me how to make those fences.
You are loved, you will be missed, but know that you are now, without a doubt, a dear and cherished part of Linesville’s history.