When I was a junior in high school, I took a world history course. It was the last in a long line of public education history courses that did very little in the way of educating me about history. My teacher was gruff and middle-aged. Had she always been just a little bit standoffish and grumpy, or had twenty-five years of teaching done it to her?
One day, we were reviewing for a test that would gauge how much we had learned about the Hellenistic civilization. We'd been studying that particular period for about the last six weeks. So poor is my history education that I don't really remember much of anything about Hellenistic civilization, but I think it was probably important, since we spent so long reading about it.
To sum up: We studied the Hellenistic period for six weeks. We then reviewed the Hellenistic period in preparation for a test. Also, I don't know crap about history.
The teacher, seeing that we had only a few minutes left in the class, gave us the opportunity to ask any last minute questions for clarification. One student sat leafing through his textbook with a perplexed expression on his face. It wasn't the book itself causing his confusion, though you might wonder. We all had the same enormous book, but his was the only one that had been left on top of a car, flung by one of Newton's Laws onto Highway 18, and then run over a few times. But it was not the state of his book hurting his puzzler. Rather, it was a specific word that he kept seeing over and over in the chapter that we were all about to be tested on. So he decided that he needed to ask about this ubiquitous and unknown word.
"What's the Hellenistic?"
Every other student in the class started laughing. Not because his question was an indication of stupidity or inattention, but because the student had spoken so quickly that it had sounded as if he had asked "What the hell is this?" while staring in confusion at his mangled book. Our laughter was first shock, because you can't say "hell" in front of a teacher. Then we all laughed some more as we figured out what he had actually said.
Unfortunately, our teacher did not mishear him, nor did she know that we had, and so we were treated to a lecture about the importance of not laughing at anyone in the quest for knowledge, even if they ask what might appear to be a stupid question. It was quite a long speech, and we all slumped in our seats, unfairly accused and unwilling to explain. At the end of it, she might have told that kid what the Hellenistic period was.
Sometime during the next week, I ran into that teacher in the hall after school. She brought up the incident again, but this time, her explanation was entirely different. She had felt obligated to lecture us, because there are no stupid questions blahblahblah. But really and truly, she thought that kid was an idiot and she wished that she could have delivered an entirely different lecture, one just for him.
I just sort of smiled and nodded, because some things are just too hard to explain.