César Pérez: How to Make Medieval Contemporary and Arguing Fun

Medieval history or soccer, Spanish or debate: Commonwealth teacher César Pérez can’t pick a favorite among his classes and activities at school. And one of the best things about Commonwealth is that he doesn’t have to... 

Much like those of the students he now teaches, César Pérez’s varied interests have pulled him in different directions from his earliest days. As a child in Cuba, he imagined himself among the stars, like in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince. At seven years old, he was certain he was going to be the first Cuban in space...

“I still remember my disappointment when I read in the newspaper that some Cuban pilot was going to participate in a Soviet space flight,” César says. (He grew up immersed in the countries’ Cold War allyship.) Thus, he “gave up what might have been a magnificent career” as an astronaut, he says, quoting Saint-Exupéry tongue-in-cheek.

As a teenager, César’s attention shifted earthward, to journalism, which he opted to study as an undergraduate in Cuba, “a place where ‘free press’ is more than an oxymoron,” he says. Still, he entered college “with dreams of becoming a war correspondent or a hard-nosed reporter hellbent on exposing corruption and abuse—you know, like the ones in American movies,” he says. A tour of the “incredibly dull and uninspiring” state-run media dashed those dreams just one week into his college career. “I finished journalism school knowing already I didn’t want to work as a journalist, at least not in Cuba,” he says.

So César moved to the Dominican Republic, where he worked “a series of almost hilariously low-paying jobs.” Then he got an offer to teach journalism at a local university. “I immediately got hooked on teaching,” he says. “Since then, I haven’t looked back.” But he did look north. Like many native Cubans, much of César’s family lived in the U.S., including his mother and younger brother, and the plan was always to reunite with them. In 2002 he finally arrived on a student visa to enter a graduate program at the University of Iowa. He then attended the Romance Languages and Literatures graduate program at Harvard. Except for a two-year stint in Connecticut when he taught at the Hotchkiss School, César has lived in Boston ever since.

He came to Commonwealth School in 2018, joining both the language and history departments, teaching all levels of Spanish as well as Medieval World History.“I have felt from the beginning most welcomed and surrounded by colleagues who are extremely committed, not only to the education process per se but to the social, personal, emotional, and community aspects of growth,” César says. “It is humbling and exhilarating to come to work every day to a place where people are working for a common goal with such a mix of competence and humanity.”

The feeling is mutual.

“César is simply a fabulous colleague,” says former Commonwealth colleague and fellow history teacher Barbara Grant. “Our conversations are informed by his deep and broad curiosity.” Barbara also designed and collaborated with César on the school’s Medieval World History course. “As a scholar of medieval literature in Spain, César brings a unique understanding to the course,” she says. “He is so deeply thoughtful, as well, about how to explore the primary sources with our students.”

César has always found medieval history to be “full of events and people and intellectual ferments that are still incredibly relevant.” Indeed, he had the curious experience of teaching the Black Death in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It is humbling and exhilarating to come to work every day to a place where people are working for a common goal with such a mix of competence and humanity.”

“It is not difficult to make connections to make the experiences of medieval peoples accessible to contemporary students,” he says, “but it is important to strike a balance, instilling in these young scholars the habit of reading critically and inquisitively but also contextually, resisting the temptation of looking at medieval topics through our twenty-first-century lenses.”

Prescient textbook chapters aside, the material is also simply fascinating. “Maybe it is the medieval nerd in me speaking here, but I find it incredibly fun,” César says.

Also incredibly fun? Arguing.

“I enjoy arguing to an almost comical extent, as many of my family and friends can attest,” César says. Accordingly, he served as Commonwealth’s debate team coach for several years. Under César’s tutelage, the debate team stayed competitive in a field full of bigger schools with well-established programs and more practice time. “We have been able to punch above our weight because of a small but very talented and committed group of debaters that have elevated each other’s game,” César demurs. He is quick to praise the students for practicing independently and the parents for their generous support of the team, especially Hilary Gabrieli, mother of team captain Nicholas Gabrieli ’20, who was the gentle force behind the team for the last two years.

“Debate is a very complete discipline that stimulates mental acuity, inspires its practitioners to stay on top of current events, allows them to practice public speaking, and teaches the useful and often overlooked ability to look at both sides of an issue,” César says. Perhaps unsurprisingly, César believes every student could benefit from joining the team, even—or perhaps especially—those who think themselves too shy. And if only more students would sign up for debate and soccer, which César also coaches (to great success) at Commonwealth, they’d “have all the developmental bases covered,” goes his not-so-subtle pitch.

César can’t pick a favorite among his classes and activities at school, and one of the best things about Commonwealth is that he doesn’t have to. “There might be schools where I would have found some resistance crossing into other people’s turf, but since that kind of cross-teaching is hardly unusual here I have not experienced any resistance, quite the opposite,” he says. This flexibility allows him to engage with students as excited about academic exploration as he is.

“Our students are not only intellectually stimulating and socially conscious; they are a funny, quirky, complex bunch that makes up for their small number with the enormous variety of their interests and talents,” he says. “I always say the students are lucky to have such a consistently excellent faculty and staff, but we are even luckier.”

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