The Things You Learn In History Books – Bridgehampton High School (2014)
The Things You Learn in History Books by Hayley Lund
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(Scene begins with a spotlight on a desk center stage. The papers and books on the desk are neatly organized. The chair to the desk is fully pushed in. There is a bed in the background. The bed is made carefully. There is no clutter in the room. Audience hears footsteps, a door open and then close, and we see EMMA, the main character. EMMA is a well-put together teenage girl with very professional taste. Instead of a bookbag, she carries a messenger bag (which is labeled according to subject and severity of that night’s homework). She rushes to her desk and gently places her messenger bag at the foot of her desk after she sits. She readjusts the bag until it is just right. She then pulls her chair into the desk until it is the perfect distance (she does and re-does this multiple times). Then, she takes a large, heavy book out of her bag. This is a history book. She retrieves a second history book from a drawer in her desk (or a specific pile, depending on the type of desk). She takes out a notebook that is clearly labeled “Advanced Placement European History.” She takes out a pink highlighter, a yellow highlighter, and a pencil from her shirt pocket.)
EMMA: I don’t understand the god complex of some teachers. They think that because they control the classroom, they can inflict whatever torture that they desire upon the students. Like today! My AP Euro teacher told us that there’s going to be a midterm tomorrow. A midterm! In October! It’s not even the middle of the term and yet he’s calling it one of his famous “pop midterms.” Who has ever heard of a “pop midterm?!” Honestly, I’m going to be sitting here studying all night because I’m not sure what material he’s going to use. He has such a wide range of topics to choose from. Like ancient European history. Or modern European culture! This would be so much easier if he had just given us a hint! (rambling) But now I have to study the entire school textbook. And then cross-reference that with my personal textbook! Then finally I can cross-reference both textbooks with my personal notes taken during lecture. (Stops rambling) It’s going to be a long night. Maybe I’ll get a snack before I start.
(Pulls a granola bar out of her bag)
EMMA: I always come prepared.
(EMMA begins to study, periodically pulling on her hair or tapping her foot or pencil. She also highlights random tips that she think may be helpful for the test. The lights begin to dim and the audience sees EMMA begin to get drowsy)
EMMA: Maybe taking all of that cold medicine earlier today was a bad idea…
(Lights fade and a blue light shines directly overhead EMMA. Dream sequence music plays briefly as the audience sees a figure appear on stage. He is wearing a French general hat and is dressed in a French general’s uniform. He takes large, loud steps towards EMMA, seemingly announcing his presence in these steps. Once he reaches her, he ahems and taps her on the shoulder. The lights come back up)
EMMA: (suddenly awake) Wha-Who are you?
NAPOLEON: (In a French accent) You mean that you do not know who I am?
EMMA: Should I?
NAPOLEON: Why, I am Napoleon Bonaparte. I’m sure the pleasure is yours. Le plaisir est le vôtre.
EMMA: Napoleon? (In a factual way) As in the French military and political leader during the 19th century?
NAPOLEON: (loving the attention and smitten with the praise) Why yes, of course it is me. And who might you be?
EMMA: Emma Holden.
NAPOLEON: Another question…Why am I here?
EMMA: (At a loss for words) (Aside) Hey! What if he was sent here by my subconscious to learn from? After all, he is a primary source. Maybe this is a sign that he’ll be a major part of the test tomorrow. (To Napoleon, who has begun to search around the room, picking up random objects and examining them) I imagine you’re here to help me with a problem of mine.
NAPOLEON: Mon cheri, I cannot help you with your problems. I am the ruler of the world, after all. I am sure I have much better places to be and things to be doing. Now, if you do not mind, I must get back to doing those better things. (Begins to exit)
EMMA: Ruler of the world? You’re not ruler of the world. You’re dead.
NAPOLEON: Well, yes I realize that I am dead. Do not think that I am so stupid! Before I was banished the second time, though, my followers vowed to me that they would take over the world in my name. I assume that that is exactly what they did.
EMMA: No…I’m positive that that has never happened.
NAPOLEON: Sacre bleu! This cannot be!
EMMA: Maybe I can help you then. Of course, you’ll have to help me first.
NAPOLEON: How could a child like you help me, the greatest man who ever lived?
EMMA: (Questioning but confident) I can help with your world domination. But you have to help me with my history test.
NAPOLEON: This is a good offer. I accept. (Takes off his right hand glove in order to shake hands with EMMA. EMMA shakes it with finality).
EMMA: (Building up his confidence. She wants him on her side)(Reporter-like) Now, let’s start off with something easy. What was your greatest accomplishment? Do you have a specific battle in mind? A strategy that you came up with that won you a glorious war? C’mon you are Napoleon Bonaparte! You have to have a crowning achievement.
NAPOLEON: Well, I think the proudest I have ever been of something that I did was when I won first prize in the French quilting competition.
EMMA: (Loses confidence) What?
NAPOLEON: You see, I spent a lot of time travelling back then. Europe may be small, but it takes a very long time to get from France to Germany in a horse-drawn carriage. So I picked up a thing or two about quilting, and it became my passion. I was an expert quilter. My handiwork was beyond compare! No one even came close to me as competition. I was untouchable!
EMMA: (Incredulously) Your crowning achievement is…quilting?
NAPOLEON: Well, do not sound so critical of me. It is quite rude. After all, what have you done? (Before she can interject with her long list of academic accomplishments) Nothing, that is right! You are but a girl with a lot of big books. People know who I am. Do they know who you are?
EMMA: I don’t care what people think of me.
NAPOLEON: Non, mon cherie. I did not ask what people thought of you. I asked if people thought of you.
(EMMA is visibly hurt by this and speechless as NAPOLEON paces around her haughtily. He has hit a nerve in her and likes the reaction that he is receiving.)
NAPOLEON: Do not take what I say to heart. You may be a no one, but I still need your help to take over the world. Therefore I, too, am a no one. I am irrelevant now. Once a man of magnitude and now nothing more than a bunch of dates that children must remember in order to pass a test that they will never think about again. But you – you have much potential! You are so young and have many paths that lay ahead of you! So why do you keep your nose stuck in these books? (NAPOLEON tosses a book to the ground and places one foot on top of it, as though he has conquered it. He is preparing her to get riled up so that he can drop some truth on her.)
EMMA: I study so I can get good grades.
NAPOLEON: What good will good grades do you if you have no idea what you are learning about?
EMMA: (conflicted) I’m not sure…
NAPOLEON: Why do you think that these grades define you? Anyone can get a good grade. But it takes some courage to fail with honor.
EMMA: But I can’t fail this test. My parents would be so disappointed in me. They need me to be a good role model for my little sister.
NAPOLEON: (Gaining intensity) They want her to fade into the background as you do now? Or do they want both of you to stand out amongst the pack?
EMMA: Well…I don’t know-
NAPOLEON: Why do you not try?
EMMA: I do try. I try so hard.
NAPOLEON: But you do not try when it matters. You are content to stay in the background. You must go out and make a name for yourself. Life is not only about what sort of grade you get. Life is about your friends. Your experiences. What you will tell your grandchildren about when you are old and crippled.
EMMA: Why can’t I tell those grandchildren about how I got good grades and got into a good college and got a good job?
NAPOLEON: Why not tell them about the good friends you made in that good college and how they helped you get a good job? Why can you not do both? Name one friend that you have now.
EMMA: (with false confidence) Taylor.
NAPOLEON: Taylor? Taylor who?
EMMA: (very confident) …Taylor Swift.
NAPOLEON: (not amused) Taylor Swift?
EMMA: (sticking to her story) Taylor Swift.
NAPOLEON: (catching her in her lie) Did she know that you were trouble when you walked in? Or perhaps she just “shook it off?”
EMMA: How do you know Taylor Swift?
NAPOLEON: I’m dead, not uncultured.
EMMA: (done with the conversation) I don’t see what any of this has to do with my grades. So what if I like to ace every test? (Matter of fact) I’m an over achiever!
NAPOLEON: But the problem occurs when you put the rest of life out of your mind and pretend that it is not worth living.
EMMA: (angrily) So what? You want me to fail this test? What will that prove, huh? Will it prove that I have guts? And where will guts get me?
NAPOLEON: People will know who you are. Not some girl who sits in the front row of all of her classes and knows the answer to every question. And they especially will not know you as the girl who corrects the teacher or reminds them about the homework, because you are most definitely that girl, you dankish boil-brained giglet.
EMMA: (Her anger dissipates and she laughs) What words just came out of your mouth? Did you just try to insult me?
NAPOLEON: Alas, I am letting onto my age. Back in my day, you would have been crushed and ashamed. In any case, it seems as though my work is done here. I must be going now. Do not forget what we have discussed.
EMMA: But I still don’t know what I’m going to do tomorrow. Should I study for the test and ace it or should I fail?
NAPOLEON: (softly) Tell me the truth…(suddenly harsh with a sarcastic undertone) Do you think I care about your petty problems? I am Napoleon Bonaparte! What do I care about a silly little girl?!
EMMA: (smiling and loose) You’re right. I’ll figure it out. (struggling to get it out)…Fuck it! Aha! I said a bad curse!
NAPOLEON: Congratulations. Oh and do not forget your promise to me. I will be back to conquer the world alongside you one day.
(EMMA goes to hug NAPOLEON, but he pushes her away and shakes her hand instead. Before her leaves, he salutes her, then walks off in a marching manner. EMMA sits back at her desk and puts her head on the same book she was leaning on before. Lights turn blue once more until an alarm rings and lights cut all the way on.)
EMMA: (awakens sharply and shuts off the alarm) That was really weird. (She begins to re-straighten her books when she notices a book on the ground that wasn’t there before [it was the one NAPOLEON stepped on].) How did this get here? (She opens the book to the inside cover to see an inscription) (reading) Much luck, Napoleon Bonaparte. P.S. Do not forget our deal. Start hashing out the details and we will discuss next time I see you. (Pauses) What the fuck.
(Lights cut to black and music begins to play out)