Exterior of the U.S. Supreme Court building

This Teacher Changed How I See Government, History and My Future

Exterior of the U.S. Supreme Court building
Learning to analyze Supreme Court cases in a real-world context had a significant impact on the author. (Photo by Claire Anderson on Unsplash)

Commentary, America Leon

History courses had always seemed so bland to me — my inability to memorize dates and events made World History and AP United States History borderline unbearable stressors during high school. And the years I spent in middle school writing research papers for history competitions were not something I particularly enjoyed. 

So, throughout high school, I turned to the sciences and visualized a STEM-focused future for myself, spending my summers doing research internships and the school year in science-related clubs. Eventually, I decided I wanted to pursue a career in medicine. “I want to be a doctor,” I insisted. I repeated that statement to every teacher when they asked about my future career goals. My aspiration received praise and excitement. Pursuing a career in STEM meant I was smart. It meant job security. It meant success. This rigid vision of my future shifted when I entered my AP Government class during my senior year of high school.

Mr. Gagen had worked at Making Waves Academy for 15 years, teaching both of my older siblings before me. My siblings spoke about his class fondly, but still, I felt unsure of what to expect and feared it would be another overwhelming, tedious and dull history course. I anticipated that the content of the course itself would be dense, and I braced myself for the extensive reading, writing and testing it would entail. AP courses revolved around preparing for the AP exam, meaning memorization, which was not my strong suit, was imperative to doing well. 

But the structure of the course and the way Mr. Gagen guided us through every concept and unit was unique. While we learned about the structure of the U.S. government, read Supreme Court case briefs, and developed an understanding of politics, Mr. Gagen emphasized that the content we learned in this course went beyond trying to perform well on an exam. We were entering adulthood, and in 2024, we would all be voting in a presidential election for the first time. 

Throughout the year, he encouraged peer collaboration through various exercises that allowed us to understand how different governmental and political systems functioned. He used personal anecdotes to help us understand the significance of political participation, the value of our vote, and some of our most fundamental rights. He encouraged us to be critical of politicians and the longstanding systems and barriers perpetuating voter suppression. He facilitated class discussions that enabled us to analyze Supreme Court cases, historical events and additional AP Government concepts in the context of real-world issues. He hosted guest speakers, including a Freedom Rider who recounted their contribution to one of the most significant non-violent civil rights movements in history. 

In the wake of immense political turmoil and global crises, the Supreme Court overturning landmark cases and depriving women of their bodily autonomy, and other authorities banning books and ethnic studies, among other blatant attempts at taking away some of our most fundamental rights, an understanding of government and politics is critical. Despite my prior disinterest in history, with the guidance of Mr. Gagen, I realized how valuable political knowledge and historical awareness are to dismantling oppressive governmental systems and advocating for one’s rights. 

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At the end of the year, I was pleased to find out that I had passed the AP exam and earned an A in the class. But beyond academics, the enthusiasm and wealth of knowledge with which Mr. Gagen approached teaching introduced me to a side of learning previously unbeknownst to me, fostering my interest in political philosophy and social justice, motivating me to pursue a career in civil rights law, and transforming history from an unbearable stressor into a fascinating avenue for creating change and imagining a more just future.

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