Monday, November 9, 2009

History begins at home

This morning, I was reading at one of my new regular stops, Playing By the Book about her latest book-inspired project, a mural-sized family tree that she made with her daughters (check out the whole blog -- it's full of great ideas for pairing books and activities with kids). It got me to thinking about how I ended up as an historian. I was pretty disdainful of history as a class in school. I think I may have had an exceptionally dry bunch of history teachers. But I read a lot of history as a child, especially after we moved to England where histories for children were more cultural than political. I was particularly enamored with the works of R. J. Unstead, especially the book on English history he wrote for children, Looking at History: From Cavemen to the Present Day. I checked the book out of the library so many times, that my parents eventually bought it for me. It is a tome. After I'd committed that to memory, I moved on to Unstead's books for adults, which I liked nearly as much. But it wasn't just the books that drew me in. It was that while living in London, I was in the middle of history. It stared at me from every corner. The flat I lived in was nearly 200 years old. There were places to go where the roads were built in Ancient Roman times. There were castle ruins to be visited, a statue of Queen Boadicea to touch, stone circles to find in the countryside. History meant something to me there, because I could see the stories everywhere I looked.

There was another book I loved, one that I'd actually discovered before I moved to England and which I returned to when I went back to the States. This one was not about history but about how to be an historian. David Weitzman's My Backyard History Book is part of the Brown Paper School series that first came out in the 1970s, about which I've raved in these pages before. The entire series is about outside-the-box thinking and it should be in every teacher and parent's toolbox. My Backyard History, as the title suggests, takes the viewpoint that history starts at home. Look at your own history. Follow it back. What do you find? Make a family tree or a time capsule. Think about what makes your time different from other eras. Talk to your relatives and your neighbors. What are their stories? How do we preserve our history? How can you preserve yours? These are all questions that continue to interest me. I ask them daily in my own research.

AJ isn't inherently interested in history, or, at least, he suffers from being the child of two history freaks. But we've figured out ways to work family history into other projects. For instance, every year for Veteran's Day, AJ's school has each child decorate a star on which they write the name and branch of service of someone close to them. For the past couple of years, AJ has written his great grandfather's name. Since AJ never met his great grandfather, who died many years before he was born, I used the opportunity to tell him some stories about his grandfather and to look at pictures together. This year, AJ decided he wanted to do someone he had actually met. So we wrote to my great uncle B, who was a career army officer. He wrote back an amazing letter with many details I'd never knew. He enlisted in the army at 18 during World War II and trained in the infantry for a Japanese invasion, but was spared combat when Japan surrendered in the wake of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. At 19, he went to officer training school and became a second lieutenant and learned to govern occupied territories. He was a paratrooper in Korea and flew a helicopter in Viet Nam. After he related many exciting stories, sometimes funny , sometimes sad, he wrote a paragraph that was heart-wrenching, addressed directly to AJ. He told AJ how hard being a soldier was sometimes, but how rewarding it was too. He told him how he still felt guilty about some of the decisions he made, but that he had done the best he could and he trusted God to forgive him. It was incredibly personal, just the kind of thing you almost never see in history books. Just the kind of thing that means more coming from someone you know.

Later today, AJ and I will read this letter together. We'll both learn something about our Uncle, about our family, and about our national history. If you're not lucky enough to be surrounded by history, make your own. Find a copy of My Backyard History and get out and start talking to people. You never know what kind of stories will emerge. I'm thinking that the letter from his great great uncle and the book his father wrote for kids about the Korean War might do the trick.

1 comment:

FreshHell said...

Very nice. I don't have a single family member who served in the military since the Civil War. My father-in-law was enlisted in the army during the Korean War but he never went overseas.

I have been trying to pull memories out of my parents for my kids for years. My dad's been good about it and has written some funny things he remembers as a child, things about his father who died when my dad was 16. My mother hasn't gotten around to it which is ironic because she's all about geneaology and family history, etc.