James Brennan wasn’t anyone that most of you have ever heard of. He was my high school history teacher, and he died in a car accident yesterday.Brennan was a comical figure. Thick coke-bottle glasses. Wild unkempt hair. Always prone to screaming non-sequiturs either at you, or just down the hallway. If you got a question really wrong, he might just look at you and ask “your parents never tell you they love you, do they?” Brennan taught us the “forearm shiver” and would scream CEMENT!!! or BOOM!!!! at us. If you weren’t in his class, I don’t think I could ever explain that to you. Trust me, it was memorable and hilarious. I really can’t classify his personality. These days, he’d likely be locked up as a crazy person. That is a sign that these days are not as good as those days were.
I arrived in his class in the 10th grade, already a pretty deep cynic. This was in a place where cynicism and questioning things wasn’t really all that popular or encouraged. History was year after year of the glories of manifest destiny and shit like that. Vietnam was about us defending freedom. Then, Jim Brennan hit us with the forearm-shiver… BOOM! (one of his many idiosyncrasies)
He ripped us through centuries of history with a healthy dose of political economy. He was the first one who ever told us that maybe the way that all the other history teachers taught us was a little bit of bullshit. Cynics were not just welcome in his class, he created them. He got us questioning everything. He handed out fallout shelter rations while talking about nuclear winter. He got us thinking that “ask not what you can do for your country” might be better phrased as “ask what the hell your country has been doing to you.”
Brennan stuck crazy ideas in our heads — ideas like what freedom of expression meant. Jim Brennan got to my forming mind right when it was time to decide whether I was going to be a “go along to get along” kind of person, or whether I was going to take on shit that I didn’t agree with. It was Jim Brennan who taught me that I didn’t have to salute the flag if I didn’t want to. After what he taught me, I didn’t want to. So I didn’t. Brennan had my back when the other teachers screamed “commie” at me.
It isn’t that Brennan taught me to be unpatriotic. Just the opposite. Brennan taught me that patriotism means questioning your country. Brennan taught me that if you love your country, its your responsibility to try and make it better by doing whatever you can — even little acts of protest like not saluting the flag in the 10th grade. Brennan taught me that I was right when standing up for something unpopular, whether my underlying point was right or wrong, because if nobody stands up then we have mindless orthodoxy. Brennan taught us about the dangers of mindless orthodoxy and made sure we remembered them. Brennan taught us that the opposite of “communism” is “capitalism” not “freedom.” Brennan taught us that our government sometimes backs the bad guy, and sometimes we are the bad guys, and most importantly, that if you think we’re being the bad guys, it is your patriotic duty to say so. My concepts of things like “liberty” and “justice” really started to take form in his class.
That was some pretty bad ass shit to be teaching to 10th graders in Gloucester, Massachusetts in 1985. And Brennan was a pretty bad ass teacher in that he could actually get 10th graders to listen to it, learn it, and never forget it.
When I express something unpopular, or defend someone who does, there’s a little bit of Jim Brennan in that act. I doubt that I would have become a First Amendment lawyer but for the good fortune of winding up in his class.
I often thought about writing him a letter, telling him about what a hell of an influence he had on me. Now its too late to do that, so I’m doing the next best thing — telling you all a little bit about him. If you don’t like who I am, you ought to blame him a little bit. If you do, then I ask you to please have a drink in his honor today.