There are angels everywhere

Published 11:55 am Wednesday, October 9, 2013

She said: What is history?

And he said: History is an angel

being blown backwards into the future

He said: History is a pile of debris

And the angel wants to go back and fix things

To repair the things that have been broken

But there is a storm blowing from Paradise

And the storm keeps blowing the angel

backwards into the future

And this storm, this storm

is called


Laurie Anderson: “The Dream Before” (For Walter Benjamin)

I wish I had thought of this in 11th grade at Kecoughtan High School when Mrs. Blaylock, my government teacher, assigned the class to define that very question, “What is history?”

There’s actually a stanza before what you see that tells of Hansel and Gretel living in Berlin. But even after all these years I can’t say that part’s become any clearer.

Yet this quoted portion makes sense to me because the analogy is easier to relate. As I interpret this song, the angel can represent ordinary people trying to make sense of their past, whether long ago or even most recently. People whose specialty is the writing of or the teaching of history can be another example of that messenger.

In fact, I knew the example of the latter, and attended his funeral this past Saturday.

If you are an alumni of Averett College/University since 1980, then you knew of Dr. William S. Trakas, one of the professors who taught history, both general and specific, for more than 30 years. He died Sept. 27 at his home in Danville.

As I recall from having taken a class or two, Dr. Trakas brought it all to life and made worth learning any subject, such as one of his specialties, German history. Perhaps that was because he was more interested in sharing his enthusiasm and insights than dwelling in an ivory tower and writing lofty papers and books.

I could devote the rest of the column to his memory, and he’d be worth it, but admittedly more so just to myself or any of you who were at Averett and studied with him.

Instead, I want to extend that analogy of teacher as angel. From elementary to college level, students are seated before someone who, ideally, is devoted to and knowledgeable of their subject.

To advance in the elegant realms of mathematics or the sciences, you must know what came before and led to the basis for study, research and practical applications.

Music, with its own mathematical foundation, requires hearing what’s been previously composed before one can create a song or symphony of one’s own.

To converse about the writings of Jonathan Swift or Maya Angelou, one should know the history involving and surrounding them. Lest I forget to give proper credit for that thought, it was Dr. Stephen Ausband, one of my other professors at Averett, who stressed the importance of studying English and history together.

And so on… .

Notice that in religions and mythologies around the world, angelic beings usually only appeared when they had something to say.

I challenge any student who reads this to consider how the angel before him or her is striving to deliver messages worth receiving. So rather than wasting time wishing and hoping for a divine appearance to make sense of the past, one only has to pay attention in class and in life to progress.

STEPHEN H. COWLES is the staff writer for The Tidewater News, and can be contacted at either 562-3187 or He knows that Dr. Trakas is with the other angels, and he’s learning from them as well. Lux perpetua.