Updated: Feb 8, 2020
By Elizabeth Gracen:
Will Bellaimey and I took a lovely stroll in Descanso Gardens not long ago to talk about history, Gen Z, and Will’s new podcast, All The Presidents, Man, produced and directed by his friend, Bianca Giaever. Will is a history teacher at a prestigious private school in Southern California. I met him over a year ago when we were both part of the Lineage Performing Arts Center production of Pippin, where we played mother and son, my conniving Fastrada to his ambitious Lewis. We had a blast and formed a fast friendship. During the production, he told me about his upcoming podcast, but I honestly wasn’t prepared for such an in-depth, entertaining listening experience when it finally launched late in 2019. Not only is the podcast incredibly funny, but Will’s ability to describe the presidents of the United States with such insightful detail and interesting slices of trivia provides a window into the zeitgeist of each era and an overall “big picture” of American history.
With no written notes to reference chronology or detail, Will begins All the Presidents, Man starting with good ‘ole George Washington and ending with Donald Trump. Bianca recorded over eleven hours and eventually cut the session down to eight hours to produce an informative and highly entertaining podcast, which is available on Spotify, iTunes or Pocket Casts.
Please Meet Will Bellaimey!
EG: So, Will, I’m in the process of listening to All the Presidents, Man and I just listened to Andrew Johnson, and I was like, "Oh my God. When you talk about Andrew Johnson, you’re talking about impeachment." And at this very moment in time, we’re right in the middle of an impeachment trial. Listening to the podcast, I immediately note that everything in history is just so repetitive. I mean, it's like we don't learn a damned thing from our mistakes.
WB: Sure. It happens again and again and again. You've just started, and you’ve got a wild ride ahead of you still.
EG: I haven't listened to all of it, but I’m wondering if there has ever been a period of time where it was just like kind of chill, when things weren’t that bad. Is that even possible in a complicated society?
WB: I think the short answer to that is “no.” The longer answer involves “chill for whom?” Because I think there have been long periods of time; for instance, there’s a whole myth about the 1950s being chill. Eisenhower being chill is based on a narrative whose focus is on the Don Drapers of the world.
EG: For white men.
WB: For white men the 1950s were pretty chill. But for everybody? It's never been chill.
EG: Right, of course it hasn't. Okay, tell me a little bit about yourself. You were a Political Science major. Where did you go to school?
WB: I grew up in Minnesota. My mom was very politically active and taught me a lot about politics growing up. A friend of ours ran for mayor. He was a journalist who was running a long-shot campaign. It was my mom's job to drive him to debates, and I used to sit in the backseat. He won and became the mayor. So that made me feel connected to politics. But also I was fascinated with the presidents, for some reason, in fourth grade.
EG: So, that's when your passion began.
WB: Oh, yeah. I got all those books that were fun facts. You can hear in the podcast whenever weird facts come up, that's me accessing that part of my brain. But it really helped me in my future education because I had this book called the Scholastic Encyclopedia of the Presidents and Their Times, and I read it probably ten times. This goes to my theory that all boys go through a stage of having Asperger's. Maybe some girls do too, but I think it's something in our culture where men are trained to become experts in something at a certain point, like trucks or cars or baseball. . . .
EG: Or airplanes or dinosaurs . . .
WB: And I had a powerful brain, and it happened at one point to fixate on the presidents, which gave me this baseline where I learned American history. I also had a good enough memory. So when I was in high school, taking U.S. history, I already knew all the dates, all the names, all that stuff that everyone else stresses out about. I didn't take any notes. I would just sit and listen and then argue with the teacher. But that meant that I was learning a depth of stuff then that other people didn't because they were trying to memorize everything. In college, I didn't take that much history, but I did take a lot of political science. And I think that gave me an understanding of the mechanisms behind the different historical moments.
EG: And then you eventually became a teacher. How long have you been teaching?
WB: I think this is my ninth year teaching. My first year, I was a Teaching Fellow in Boston at a K through eighth, and I taught seventh and eighth grade while I was getting my master's degree in Education. Then I taught in New York for five years, and I taught every grade from six to eleven there at a fancy private school in the Bronx.
EG: Has teaching always been your calling?
WB: No. At one point I wanted to be involved in politics, and I worked in a very low level capacity on Obama's campaign and on Al Franken's campaign. Then I spent the summer working for a lobbying firm in Washington, on Capitol Hill. I got a little bit of a sense of what D.C. is like, and I basically realized that I did not want to have bad people in my life. That was mostly in college, that was me spending my summers working in politics. By the time I left college, I was pretty certain that I didn’t want to stay in politics.
EG: That's so lucky that you figured that out before you got sucked into it all.
WB: I just came to the conclusion that that wasn't a life that I wanted to live. I think I very easily could have woken up at forty-five and been like, this is terrible. So, I'm glad that I changed my mind. Instead, I get to be a teacher, which has always been part of my family. My dad's a teacher, my brother's a teacher, both of my grandparents on my mom's side were professors. I've always liked working with kids. For me it's great because I get to think about and talk about politics all the time.
EG: You only teach history classes?
WB: I taught English a little bit at both of my previous schools. I'm still interested in teaching literature also, but at the moment, I only teach history. I teach one class that is AP government and politics, that's for seniors, and I teach a seventh-grade class that is about the history of Los Angeles.
EG: Let’s go back to the podcast. When was it recorded?
WB: In 2017. Honestly, I don't think I could do the podcast right now, at least not as well. I think that was me at peak performance because I was in the middle of teaching an American history course. It was actually this really cool course that was American history and American literature together. Me and an English teacher would teach it together. It was amazing. It was two hours a day, and we would just bounce off each other. And it also means that during that time, we read everything from Hawthorne to Tony Morrison to The Great Gatsby, which meant that our conversations about American history had this depth—it was American studies. So what you're hearing on the podcast is a brain that is, at that time, really invested in a lot of really deep questions about America and had been trying to figure out how to explain it to about 17-year-olds, which is a pretty good age to get a fair amount of depth.
EG: Tell me about your director/producer, Bianca Giaever.
WB: Bianca and I became friends in college.
She was a couple years below me, and we were in a similar circle of friends. This is Middlebury College
in Vermont. It's a small liberal arts college known for languages and cross-country skiing.
EG: How did you decide on that school?
WB: I narrowed it down that I wanted to go to a small liberal arts school, and I wanted to go somewhere where there was snow because that was important to me. And I also went there because they had a program where you could be a Feb, which means you start, you take a gap semester, like you start in February, and that was really appealing to me. And I went and lived in Peru and taught English for six months instead of being in school, and that was a really powerful experience, too.
EG: Right out of high school?
WB: Yeah, it was in 2006. I was 18.
EG: How long were you in Peru?
WB: About eight months. I found a program for gap-year kids, mostly from England, that would get me set up to teach and give me a home-stay. So I lived with a family, and they took me up to a school in a really rural part of Peru, and they gave me a binder and they introduced me to the principal of the school, and they were like, "This is your English teacher now." And I didn't really get any training, but I was 18 so I just kind of thought I could do anything; but I was not a very good teacher, but I had a lot of fun, and I had some time to travel around South America on my own. It was just cool to not be in school. I had spent years always being in school, and that's why I always recommend to my kids to take time off, although very few do.
EG: But it doesn’t sound like you took that much time off.
WB: No, it was really perfect because I also still got to come back to school and be with kids who are my own age, all of whom had had a similar experience. And those are still my best friends.
EG: And Bianca is one of those people?
WB: Well, Bianca was a Feb, but she was two years below. I forget what she did on her semester off, but we did a number of projects together in college. We hosted The Moth storytelling series together, and we made a radio documentary together over a summer. We got a grant, and we made a documentary about private prisons in Vermont. And that was the last radio project that I ever did . . . and the first.
EG: Bianca is a filmmaker now, right?
WB: Yeah. She had a video, The Sacred is Sacred, go viral right after she graduated, on Vimeo, and suddenly had all sorts of offers to do all sorts of work and has been making great little films, but actually spent a couple years working at This American Life for Ira Glass, who was a mentor for her. She now works for the New York Times at The Daily podcast. But Bianca is always wanting to just record stuff and—
EG: —Document things. I know the feeling.
WB: And she also has had this long-term thing about how she feels she didn't get a good history education. She’d watch me teach before and has always been like,"Will, can I record you talking about history, because it'll be like the history class I never got." And I brushed her off for awhile, but she was insistent about doing it, so we finally did. When she came over to my apartment, we just started recording. And the rule was that I couldn't have any notes, which kind of comes from The Moth idea, right? She would ask questions. She’s edited out most of her questions, but as you've just experienced walking around with me, she just asked me questions and gave me permission to just go—which I don't do in my teaching all that often. I honestly didn't think the podcast would ever be released, but Bianca was at some weird artists' retreat in the Adirondacks and had some time and decided she wanted to teach herself how to edit because she's been directing but having other people edit for a long time. And she was like, "I need a project where I have a bunch of audio that needs to be edited." And the nice thing about this podcast was that she wasn’t trying to edit it in a complicated way. She was just trying to take it from eleven-and-a-half hours down to eight-and-a-half hours and just cut basic things out. So it was a really good project for her to just learn the basics. And in the course of listening to it, she thought, "This is actually pretty good. I really like this. Let's send it out."
EG: What has the response been like?
WB: It's been great. I mean we didn't try to market it, we didn't try to sell it to anyone or anything. We just put it on Spotify, and I emailed that information out to a bunch of people I know, and a lot of people have emailed me and said that they really enjoyed it. And I've had great conversations with friends and family. I also got an angry email from the Kennedy Library saying that I was slandering Kennedy.
EG: Oh, I haven't gotten to him yet, but you do make some reference about his book—that somebody else wrote for him.
WB: Yeah, they didn't like that. They didn't like that I said that he had an affair with Marilyn Monroe, but he did. And they didn't like the whole thing about shenanigans in Chicago with the election, but that's true also. So I disagree with the Kennedy Library.
EG: So what did they say, cease and desist?
WB: No, it was actually fairly friendly. They said we think this is wrong, but I didn't ever respond.
EG: My education in history is much like Bianca's. I remember liking history class, but I don't really have great history recall. I have a feeling that a lot of people feel that same way. Is that just an American thing? Or is that a global thing—are other countries familiar with their own histories?
WB: That's a great question, and I don't know the answer. Because I'm a history teacher, and because I like talking to people, I often talk to people from other countries about their experience. And I would say I'm not usually like, "Whoa, people from other countries really know their history." I don't think there's some secret trick that other history teachers in other countries have figured out to make it really stick in people's brains. It has to be relevant. And I think most people enjoy hearing about history as a story. They remember it the same way that they remember a novel that was assigned to them in English class that they liked. Where it's like, "Oh yeah, The Great Gatsby. That was pretty crazy when that girl died in that pool. Was it a pool? Was it a girl died? I don't really know." And when someone says that about a novel, we're not like, "Oh, tsk, tsk, you're a bad citizen." But when you're like, "Oh, it was pretty crazy when Abraham Lincoln bombed Pearl Harbor. Wait. Was it Pearl Harbor?" Then we're like, "Oh, no, no, that's bad."
EG: Because it is bad. You should know that! Because in studying and knowing our history, we might actually advance as a civilization. Don't you think?
WB: Oh, absolutely.
EG: The same stupid mistakes. Power and greed. It's always the same.
WB: I wonder if everybody was a history major, what would happen?
EG: It depends who teaches the history.
WB: And it depends what form of history is being taught. I actually think there's a sense in which previous generations knew their history better because they were fed a simpler story. We all remember what happened in Green Eggs and Ham. So if the story is like, George Washington and the cherry tree and the Civil War, that's pretty easy to hold in your mind.
EG: But it's a lie.
WB: It's a narrative.
EG: Do you have a favorite president? Did you mention that?
WB: I think I hate that question the same way film critics hate their top 10 list. But I usually say Lincoln as my kind of Citizen Kane. I mean, Lincoln is incredible. He's not perfect, but I think he was a man of deep integrity who took his job really seriously. I'm reading this book called Lincoln's Melancholy right now about his depression. I think he's someone who experienced profound loss both before becoming president and also with the death of his son during his presidency that really, I think, put him in a mental state that allowed him to feel the gravity of what was going on. And I think he was also religious in a way that was useful to his larger view. Not religious in the sense that he was Christian. I just mean . . .
EG: Just spiritual. Thought of it on a deeper level.
WB: And when you read his writings, he's always thinking. I think he thinks with a historical scope of what's going on. At his second inaugural, when he's saying things like, "And it came to be, if it came to be that every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid for with one with the sword," it's this sense of, oh, what's happening right now is way bigger than you or me or any individual person. And that's, I think, what makes him a great president. Although . . . you can argue. . . I could sit and make some arguments about why he's terrifying and a bad person, because it's always more complicated than that. But I think he's my favorite to study for that reason.
Stay tuned for more "History Lessons" with Will Bellaimey.