Skip to Content

Killing Socrates with Coffee: Memories and the Joy of Pretending

Posted by Jennie Fiddes
22 January 2013 - 11:20am

When I was a child, my class reenacted the trial of Socrates. It was one of our history lessons - we were learning about ancient cultures and customs and we were in the midst of our Ancient Greece and Rome unit.

Quick refresher: Socrates (469-399 BC) was an Athenian philosopher who was charged with “corrupting the youth” and “failing to acknowledge the gods”by teaching philosophy using methods that many others disapproved of amidst a great deal of local politics and suspicious oracular proclamations. He was declared guilty after a trial by jury and was sentenced to death via hemlock.

My class was divided into two teams. One side fought for Socrates and for his right to live and to teach according to his own principles. The other side fought for his death and for censorship. As a group, we had to a) grapple with whether or not Socrates was guilty of a crime and b) what his punishment should be.

We were 11 years old.

We decided that our principal, Mr. Fletcher, was going to be Socrates. This added to the fun – we were to be the judge, jury and (possibly) executioner. We decided that the notorious hemlock – the method of execution – was going to be our teacher’sinfamouscoffee mug (which was rumored to be cleaned only on Christmas and Easter).

We dressed up in togas and sandals and researched our little hearts out. We were Athenian citizens. We talked about what the decision might mean for education and the preciousness of life. We debated about corruption and the influence of religion.

We voted to convict. Not necessarily because the pro-death side had better arguments (secretly, we all agreed that the pro-lifers had it) but we really really wanted to see Mr. Fletcher drink the “hemlock”.

This was 17 years ago. I distinctly remember many details, both factual and emotional. I remember researching and trying to come up with interesting arguments and struggling to make sense of the complicated concepts. I remember realizing that although the “pro” side was winning the battle, we were still going to lose the war because it was funnier. I remember gleefully watching my principal as he drank from the notorious cup and pretended to die.

I remember these details because we felt we were living it through our performance. It may not have been the most historically accurate portrayal in human history, but for us it was real. And nearly two decades later, I still remember that history lesson. I think about that day every time Socrates or hemlock is mentioned. That class, amongst others that year, sparked my interest in the past and prompted me to read more. I am now an archaeologist.

These are experiences that move beyond the history textbook in compelling ways. We need to encourage children to pretend to be different people once in awhile, to try to see different worlds and different concepts from different perspectives. It does not matter if it is entirely accurate. What matters is that kids can be kids while still learning. It does not have to be complicated to have a lasting influence. A few old bed sheets and one creative teacher in my past helped define my future.

How do you incorporate performance in your history lessons?

Photo: The Death of Socrates, Jean-Louis David (1748-1845), public domain