Many parents complain that their child finds history boring, and yet the development of a love of history will make his or her life far richer. A person who finds history fascinating will have an enhanced view of the world and will be a better citizen. He or she will understand that to be fully alive in the present, it is imperative to know what life was like in the past.
Exploring historical topics can be an exhilarating experience. This has happened to me in my career many times but one of the most memorable moments occurred in lower Manhattan when I successfully retraced the steps of a black schoolteacher named Elizabeth Jennings, who was the Rosa Parks of old New York. Most of the buildings were gone, several streets were re-named, and indeed the shape of Manhattan island itself was different than it had been that fateful day in 1854 when Miss Jennings refused to leave a segregated streetcar and was physically assaulted. She went to court, and the result was the first significant step in the fight to desegregate New York City’s public transportation. As I was re-tracing her steps I came across a small patch of old cobblestones with streetcar tracks still visible. From my reaction, passersby might have thought I had struck gold.
But, indeed, that is the point. It was gold! It was a tiny piece of the past that ignited my determination to tell the Elizabeth Jennings story to the world. She deserved a book, so I wrote one.
Where does this determination and joy come from? Parents, teachers, and librarians ask me if I was born with a love of history or if I acquired it. The good news is that it is learned behavior! Here are some suggestions that I can share with you:
1. START EARLY. My parents took my siblings and me to historical sites and museums from a very young age. A particular favorite that I remember was Fort Ticonderoga on the upper reaches of Lake George, N.Y. Another memorable place – which wasn’t even a developed as a landmark yet – was Cowpens, a Revolutionary Battle site in South Carolina.
2. SHOW YOUR OWN ENTHUSIASM. My dad loved history and his enthusiasm was contagious. I remember other kids at museums or historic sites who seemed bored and I recall their parents acting bored, too. If you act like it is a chore, your child will follow your example.
3. STEP ASIDE. My dad had a way of (sometimes) overselling his own interests, but my mom would listen and watch carefully to see what caught each of our imaginations. Then she supported and built on that interest.
4. RESEARCH apps and games that tie in to places you’ll visit. In my day we didn’t have such things but we did have an encyclopedia, World Book, and Dad would read aloud before we went on an excursion. Today, there are more books than ever and for all ages that parents should investigate to help pique the child’s interest ahead of time. If you’re not sure, ask a librarian.
5. ARTIFACTS ARE IMPORTANT. The first historical object that captured my imagination was an artifact my great-great grandpa had brought back from the Civil War: two bullets that had hit head on during a battle, and melted together. That’s a pretty spectacular artifact but the reality is that most people have all kinds of objects that could lead to fascinating discussions with a child. Look around you. You may have old tools, horseshoes, paper artifacts such as passports. Even an old typewriter could spark a conversation.
6. ENCOURAGE YOUR CHILD TO RESPECT ELDERS and to listen to their stories. I was lucky to have a number of relatives who lived into their nineties and even past 100. Our old folks were the center of our lives. If great-grandma wanted to eat lunch at noon, that meant we all ate lunch at noon. If you respect your old folks you will be interested in their stories. (Tip: If you don’t know how to start asking an elder about the past, start by looking at an old photo album together.)
7. EVERYONE HAS A STORY: That is an old saying worth teaching your child. Reach out to your community to hear other people’s stories. If a Holocaust survivor, for example, is speaking at your local library, by all means go, and bring your child. Search your neighborhood, visit a local nursing home, ask at your church, synagogue, or other place of worship, and you will find older people, many of them lonely, who have stories to share of the old days.
In sum, to love history is to enjoy a richer life, yet many Americans have lost sight of the past. How can we make decisions for the future if we don’t know what happened before our time? History is not “over” nor is it dead, as some would say. Rather, it is the foundation of all things here and now.
Amy Hill Hearth is the author, most recently, of STREETCAR TO JUSTICE: HOW ELIZABETH JENNINGS WON THE RIGHT TO RIDE IN NEW YORK, written for middle-grade to adult readers. She has written nine other books including HAVING OUR SAY: THE DELANY SISTERS’ FIRST 100 YEARS. Find out more at http://www.amyhillhearth.com