On Casts, Castings, and Unexpected Castaways

Jennifer Schneider

I’ve been teaching history for as long as I can remember. My seasons are largely a rotating selection (natural and national) of world topics (both ancient and timely). Everything from (and between) Early Civilizations, compass-spinning explorations, and cold (and highly calculated) wars. My interests (along with Imperialism, Colonialism, and Impressionism) originated young. I’m essentially born and bred of history and hard-to-break habits. Initially, I lectured to my pet gerbils. Aptly named The Great Compromiser, Billy the Kid, and Calamity Jane. As I grew (and the gerbils grew tired of life and listening), I turned to Cabbage Patch Kids (renamed Auk, Ike, and Mack). I learned to swap lectures for listening sessions. And shoebox dioramas for deep dives into diasporas. As my skills and documented conquests grew, I landed a dream job teaching a rotating group of seventy-odd (in number not nature) high schoolers five days a week. Constitutional Law a favored topic. My Period 5 space (sandwiched between territories reserved for school-wide lunch and mandatory physical education) a favored time of day. 

My students would graduate and go on to make histories uniquely their own. I had neither aspirations nor expectations for history-making myself. I prefer to spend my time studying experiences already lived. As a creature of habit (mostly historical, largely conventional), I enjoy routine. My classrooms are prime habitats for repeated stories with routine acts (and casts). Even as I work to cover more ground and too often-silenced voices, themes persist. I’ve always believed history repeats itself. Not unlike my gerbils’ daily ride on a wheel that never stops spinning. Earth of axes both foreign and familiar. I too am a creature of habit. In my lessons, I try to keep things light. I avoid fights in classroom spaces. I know that war is inevitable. On my time, I work to add some whimsy and a dash of rhyme. I believe doing so is a way to appeal to my students. An opening or pre-course to a heavy meal. Most days I dress in neutral slacks (careful never to take side) and a button down in a solid hue (usually ironed, give or take a wrinkle or two). 

This year I’ve got two sections of U.S. History, one Honors and one AP. Please don’t ask me about the differences. It’s largely a matter of a lock and key. I have another class on World. One more on Geography. Mostly, I set out the maps, then encourage my students to make (sometimes pave) their own plots. 

The kids are simply put – great. My English colleagues prefer technical terms like talented, proficient, and engaged. Me, I’m a creature of habit. Raised on Tony the Tiger (a bowl of Frosted Flakes each morning) and eight-ounce glasses of juice. All highly regular. Perfectly portioned and well suited for all tastes. Spending days in the classroom with the kids, always Grrr-Eat. They call me Ms. B.

Today, I arrived early. Period 2 was deep in the heart of Africa. Periods 7 and 8 were busy with a study of questionable “Greats”. The quiet minutes before the first bell were mostly mine. I’d typically spend them reviewing lesson plans and dusting books. This morning, my thoughts lingered on our upcoming play -- Hamilton, the History department’s time to shine. Preview night was scheduled for early next week. Precisely at 9.

As I dreamed, the wall phone rang. 

“Ms. B.? Are you there?”

“Yes, of course.” I replied.

“Good,” Mr. D. our school band and theatre director continued. “I’ve got some news. And I’m afraid it’s a bit of a doozy.”

He’s always been my crush. He has an affinity for rhyme and velvet. I’ve always hoped one day we might connect. I, too, am drawn to lyrical text and cranberry crush (drinks and plush). Still, I know from my studies of war and negotiation, never to rush. 

Mr. D. continued. “Turns out the plays been moved up. Tonight, all lights go bright. And the twins have moved out. Their father was transferred on the spot. We’re going to need to fill the lead slot.” 

As a history buff, I knew my stuff. “Ah, Hamilton’s the name. I’ll find us a kid ready and eager for some local fame,” I replied. “Give me a few. I’ll see what I can do.” 

As Mr. D. expressed his thanks, I returned the phone to its cradle. I knew I had quite a task. The homeroom kids had since settled in their seats. The bell had rung while my nerves were strung. A fleet of twenty heads all down. Lips moved in silent formation. My thoughts raced. I’d need to rally my homegrown and locally sourced nation. 

After a moment’s thought, I had a plan. My U.S. History classes. All kids were fans. Many of my homeroom troops were a part of the play-prep plans. Hamilton’s been our game. We started with Act One then turned time and tuned tasks. Each kid had a slot. We recently had a new addition whom I hoped might enjoy the plot. As a historian I understand the power of negotiation. Timing as important as any constitutional signing. 

“Benj,” I said. “Can I speak with you please?”

“Sure, Ms. B.”

“Turns out we have a need. Any interest in trying out for the lead?”


“Yes, for the Hamilton cast. The students before you they had to pass. They’ve moved on and you’ve moved in. Come on Benj. Can you give it a go?” I said with a grin.

“Sorry, I don’t act. I’ve got no interest in partaking in any three-night pact.” 

Each of the students were privy to my preference for rhyme. I knew to move on to the few remaining options. There was little time. 

“It’s prime time for a shot, Drey,” I pivoted. “Give it some thought.”

“Sorry Ms. B. I’m not interested in being part of anyone’s plot.” 

Would a spat (or string) of dialogue engage? I asked the three remaining of the already assigned lot. 

“No Ma’am, I’d much prefer to avoid a conflict.”

Details aside, none of the cast or classroom crew knew what to do. I tried all tactics. Found myself downright out of luck. Unable to find anyone able to step in at prime time I was left with no choice. Forced to comply with the people’s voice (democracy in, dictatorship I am not) I quickly retreated to the costume room. 

Swapped my khakis for bloomers. My polo for pantaloons. Little did the kids know I’d sing each night under the moon.

On the spot, I committed to practice what I preach. By nightfall I would know the lines by heart. Decided I’d rewrite my plot and take my shot.

“Ms. B.,” the kids cried as I stepped back into the classroom dresses of another time. “You look mighty fine.”

“Come y’all let’s go have ourselves a good time,” I replied. 

We practiced the routine until I had it down – squeaky clean.  

The show went on without a hitch. Mr. D. was also a fan. As the curtains fell, someone whispered a tell. He was watching front row and center. A castaway with no ticket. His face a glow. His dress a splendor.

“Thank you,” he whispered. “Want to grab some tea post show?” He winked then tapped his toe. 

I couldn’t have been more pleased. The kids all took their bows. Fast forward five years Mr. D. and I exchanged our vows. We made history that night. Not of war but peace. Also broke a series of historical expectations. Lessons learned. Tales told. All stars aligned. All contracts (and hearts) signed. Everything just right.

©Society for Applied Anthropology 

P.O. Box 2436 • Oklahoma City, OK 73101 • 405.843.5113 • info@appliedanthro.org