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At Dawn, He Writes

Published: Oct 2, 2001

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Photo by: MARK GUSS
Alan N. Kay uses Plato's book "The Republic'' to relate the Socrates story about the rewards of knowledge. Kay's first book, "Send 'Em South,'' was published in July.

DUNEDIN - Alan N. Kay feels passionate about the past - to a fault, he says.

On his Hawaii honeymoon, the high school history teacher brought his new bride, plenty of suntan oil and a copy of Gordon Prange's ``At Dawn We Slept,'' the story of Pearl Harbor.

``I'm sitting on the beach in Oahu reading that book and my wife is just looking at me like, `You must be crazy.' ''

To inspire the same passion in students, Kay rises before dawn to weave fictional young people into real events of the past.

His book, ``Send 'Em South,'' released in July by publisher White Mane Kids, is the pre-Civil War story of an Irish immigrant boy in Boston who helps a runaway slave girl being chased by slave catchers. It's the first in his 10-book series, ``Young Heroes of History.''

Nicole Riley, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania-based publisher, says the book seems off to a good start, though the company won't release sales figures.

Kay's calendar is filling up with speeches and book signings.

``It's amazing the reception I've gotten, especially from my home school markets,'' he says.

He has had a great reception at his own school, too.

``Of course, we're just ecstatic about the whole thing,'' says Dunedin High School Principal Mildred Reed.

SUBHED A Love Of Teaching

Should Kay become the John Grisham of historical fiction for young people, he isn't sure he would give up teaching. That's another passion.

Kay, 35, was named History Day teacher of the year for Florida last year and was a finalist in the national competition, judged partly on recommendations from peers and students.

On a recent day, Kay teaches his honors class about the Athenian philosopher Socrates, who was forced by the government to drink poison in 399 B.C. for, among other charges, corrupting the youth of Athens.

He considered wearing a toga, he tells the teens, but they would spend the hour laughing and looking and not listening.

He relates the allegory of the cave, a Socrates story passed on by his friend Plato in his book ``The Republic.'' It's about people chained in a cave so that all they can see are silhouettes cast on a wall like shadow puppets. They view that as reality. A man is released from the cave and taken outside, where, after his pained eyes adjust to the light, he sees the real world.

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``What is it that has been given to the man that's been set free?'' Kay asks.

``Knowledge,'' a student answers.

``Knowledge,'' Kay confirms.

His students have had a similar experience, he says. They have put up with the ``pain'' of studying hard and have been rewarded with knowledge.

Kay, a Brandeis University honors graduate who has taught for 11 years, says the 2,500-year-old story has relevance to people today.

Facing Same Issues And it shows why understanding history is important: The same issues consume us today.

``Why did Timothy McVeigh blow up the Oklahoma City federal building? He did it because he was protesting the federal government, which is exactly what the Civil War was all about.''

History has been given short shrift in schools, Kay says, because the business world doesn't think it's important.

``You are never going to lose a job in a business environment because you got low grades in history, even though in my opinion it's the most important course. Not just because I'm a history teacher, but because it's what makes us all better citizens and better people.

``You know when these critical issues come in elections, and you want the person who's pressing that ballot to not elect Hitler again, he should know who Hitler is.''

Reporter Philip Morgan can be reached at (813) 259-7609.

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