Recently, a friend I have known since high school shared a post on Facebook in which she expressed her dismay at the number of people she has heard suggest that the United States drop “the bomb” on Syria “like we did to Japan at the end of World War II.” In her post, she pointed out the lack of knowledge of Modern World History and ignorance of current events reflected by such a senselessly inflammatory statement. When I read her post, my mind went straight to my favorite high school history teacher, Mr. Arnold Blum.
Mr. Blum had the kind of appearance that cried out for the mocking humor of young teens. He was a stout, balding man of indeterminate age–he was probably somewhere in his 50s or his 60s, but he simply looked “old” to us. His style of dress can only be described as a riot of plaids–very wide plaid ties mismatched with a plaid shirt or jacket or pants. Some days, he would throw a striped shirt into the mix for good measure.
My favorite of his accessories were his shoes. Based on our observations, we determined that he owned only one pair of loafers, which he would “paint” with either black or white shoe polish, depending on the season. The brush marks from applying the polish were clearly visible, which only added to our deep fascination: Who was this bizarrely frugal and apparently colorblind man?
So iconic was the hodgepodge appearance of Mr. Blum that a friend of mine who had moved away to another state after 10th grade made a small ceramic “Mr. Blum” figurine (pictured below) in his art class at his new school, and brought it to me as a gift on a visit back to our hometown. Though the tie has chipped away a bit, I have kept the little figurine mostly intact for nearly 35 years now–a testament to the lasting impact of the Blum style.
I first encountered Mr. Blum when I was a 13 year old high school freshman in 1981. During that era, our high school offered two very timely freshman social studies courses, titled CPS (Comparative Political Systems) and CES (Comparative Economic Systems). The goal of the curriculum was to explore the similarities and differences between the political and economic systems of the United States and the Soviet Union, and in doing so, to introduce our young minds to the value of comparative analysis and critical thought.
Though the courses primarily focused on outlining the characteristics and crucial differences inherent in each system, I was most intrigued by the points of commonality that Mr. Blum highlighted. For example, I remember discussing the impact of social programs like Social Security and Medicaid in the United States, and I also recall his description of the then-current boom of the dachas, or privately owned seasonal summer homes, in the Soviet Union.
Mr. Blum’s quirky style and mannerisms made him a mesmerizing deliverer of memorable quotations. I can still picture exactly the way his eyebrows lifted, his eyes bugged out slightly, and his voice became oddly enticing whenever he would quote Frederick Engels: “The State will wither away.” It was as if some part of him knew that this sentence might spark the imaginations of a roomful of kids who were listening to punk and post-punk anti-establishment songs on their turntables.
Most historians would site 1981 as the beginning of the end of the Cold War, though by the time I was a sophomore, President Reagan was starting his campaign to sell the “Star Wars” Strategic Defense Initiative to the American people. Meanwhile, at our high school, an oddly dressed character named Mr. Blum was offering his students a rational and detailed explanation of who the Soviets were, how they lived, what values and ideologies they professed, and how they were both like us and unlike us. Beneath all my juvenile laughter, there was a part of me that understood, even then, the deeper message of his lessons: he wanted us to “humanize” the “enemy.”