Five People in History

Some weeks ago, a student of mine posed a question to me in the minutes before class began:

If you could meet five people, from any time in history, who would they be?

I didn’t have time to think about the notion then, and I’d essentially forgotten all about it until just now. But I’ve pondered it for the past three minutes or so, and I think I’ve got a working answer, which is to break these five spots into categories — personal, religious, political, cultural, and spiteful — and I’ll choose one figure from each.

For many reasons, this kind of list is inherently dependent upon the context of the moment and the individual. My answer probably won’t be the same tomorrow. And even my idea of categories might break down altogether: After the next presidential lie-a-thon debate, for instance, I might want just five political figures; that would give me more folks with whom to drink away our dreams for the future of this nation.

Regardless, here’s the list for now:

1. [Personal] My Grandfather. When I was in eighth grade, I won the school science fair and got to go to the state competition. My grandfather on my mom’s side had been a science teacher, and he was, in the purest sense of the word, a good man. We had always been close, and so I called him. He was thrilled. He said he was proud of me. He was coming to visit us soon, and he couldn’t wait to hear all about it. That was the last time I spoke to him, and I’d like to see him just once more, just for a moment, just to tell him that I love him and to hear him say — as I hope he is — that he’s proud of me.

2. [Religious] Jesus. Some good comes from religion. So does a whole hell of a lot of evil (far more than comes of atheism, as it happens, but that’s another topic). In fact, I’m devilishly tempted to fill the rest of this list with religious founders just so that I could get them all to see what is done in their names. Then I’d parade them out in front of everyone so we could all get their stories straight. Probably wouldn’t go well, though. I suspect that a great many Christians would stone Jesus in the name of Jesus. Would be surreal, but sorta not cool.

3. [Political] Thomas Jefferson. I will freely admit my bias in saying this: I think that mine is the greatest country on the planet. And it is so because of a group of flawed human beings who saw their weaknesses and their strengths and wisely came together to form for this new world a new vision of freedom. I’d like to chat with them all, frankly, but I think I’m most fascinated by Jefferson. No, America doesn’t get everything right. Health care is a mess. Our political system is dangerously fractured by demagogues and ideologues. And in the name of freedom we are astonishingly willing to sacrifice our freedoms and those of others. Frankly, I’d like to know what Jefferson would think of it all. I don’t know that he’d have great solutions, mind you — he’d probably be too mesmerized by my iPhone to think straight — but it would be fun to talk with him about the issues just the same.

4. [Cultural] Geoffrey Chaucer. I know, I’m a homer. It’s honestly a tough call betwixt my boy Geoffrey, Shakespeare, Mozart, and Michelangelo, but in any case it mostly comes down to me wanting to shake the man’s hand. Sure, I’d also like to ask them some questions — “So, Geoff, did you really intend to write more Canterbury tales? And how did you die, anyway?” — but more than anything I would just like to shake their hands firmly, look them in the eyes, and say thanks.

5. [Spiteful] Adolf Hitler. I want the chance to kick him in the gonads. Scratch that. I want us all to have the chance to kick him in the gonads. Town by town, country by country, I’ll take Hitler around the world he wanted to rule and give everyone an opportunity to line up and swing away. I’ll ask only for donations — a dollar, a dime, a can of corn for the homeless, whatever you can afford — and it’ll be the greatest tour in history: “Kick Hitler in the Sack! In Topeka for One Night Only!”

So that’s five for the moment. Who y’all got?


  1. I can’t resist trying this one.

    First up — Queen Neferititi — I suspect she used her beauty to mask a serious brain. I wonder, for example, if hubbie Akenhaten really thought up the one-god idea all by himself. And which priests offed her and tried to eradicate her from history?

    Next, I’d like a chat with Montezuma. What made him think the conquistadors were gods, and was he as evil a king as legends say?

    I want to chat face to face with William Bartram. His book about his explorations of southeastern North America is chock full of details, but I’m betting he could tell me many thousands of more tidbits I’d love to know.

    I suspect it would take at least a year to learn everything anthropologist Margaret Mead didn’t put into her books. For example, how did her work affect her personal relationships? Three husbands was quite a few for back then.

    Finally, I’d like a good long talk with my maternal great-great grandfather. After his daughter (my great grandmother) died from a lingering illness after childbirth, he stole his grandson and granddaughter (my grandmother) when my great grandfather was away on business and put them in an orphanage far, far away. The kids were only four and two, and great-great grandpere must have spread some money around, because my great grandfather never found them. They found him when they became adults. How selfish and egocentric does a man have to be to perpetrate such evil on his own blood?

    Thanks, Mike. That was fun!

  2. What a great list Mike. Believe me when I say I KNOW your Grandfather would be proud of you (as are we!)

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