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History Filled With People Making Choices

Get young people excited about history. canstockphoto21727158

I periodically have the opportunity to speak with young men and women about history. I got into an informal conversation recently with some students about history and I was a bit shocked at the attitude some of them had about it.

One of them made the statement, “History is just a bunch of dates and names and places you have to memorize to get through a class.”  I challenged him on it.

“You’re wrong,” I told him. “Behind each one of those dates and names and places is drama and intrigue, mystery and danger, love and hate and all the other human emotions you have or will experience in your life.”

He and some of the other students were caught by surprise and while I had them on the ropes I decided to press the point. I told them, “If you dig into history behind those names and dates and places you’ll find people, just like you and me, making choices. Sometimes the individual choices had little impact by themselves but collectively, those choices changed the course of history.”

A couple of the students in the back of the small circle rolled their eyes and drifted away. But, most of them were still listening and one said to me, “Ordinary people like us don’t make history; governments and politicians and big business make history.”

“That’s true at the macro level, but if you break down each historical event to its source, it generally leads back to ordinary people who make choices, and those choices then make history,” I said.

I could see the students were interested now so I had to give them an example or two to really bring home the point.

So I asked if anybody knew the story behind the National Anthem. I heard crickets and saw blank stares so I quickly summarized the story of 35-year-old American lawyer and amateur poet Francis Scott Key.

I told them how in 1814 he made the choice to go under a flag of truce to the British as they were fighting the Americans at Ft. McHenry, to negotiate a prisoner exchange in order to free, among others, his elderly friend and town doctor, William Beanes.

His choice resulted in his being taken prisoner, thus being on a British ship as it bombarded the fort so that he could see the stars and stripes still flying after a long night of shelling – and he penned the poem “Defence of Fort M’Henry,” which later would become our National Anthem, a.k.a. the Star Spangled Banner.

“When he was doing all this, he didn’t see himself making history, he was just making choices just like you and I do every day,” I pointed out.

To further illustrate the point I asked, “What about that flag – the star spangled banner - how did it come about?” Nobody knew, so I told them the story of Mary Pickersgill, the daughter of a noted flag maker, Rebecca Young.

In 1813 Mary received a request to make a flag so large that the British could see it flying over the fort from their ships in the Baltimore Harbor. She chose to take on the project and with friends and associates in her home hand-sewed the largest flag ever flown at that time, 30-feet by 42-feet. This was the flag still flying after a night of bombardment that inspired Key’s poem.

The impromptu history session broke up but as the students were walking away I could hear some of them talking about the flag, so hopefully some would choose to look into it further.

Why am I relating this story to Week-Enders? Because I think parks and rec professionals are in a unique position to influence young people and to encourage them to take an interest in history and how it impacts them today.

My hope is that parks and rec practitioners will take every opportunity to connect history with activities. When I suggested this to a local recreation director he passed the idea on to his summer camp director and she made the theme for the camp “Red, White and Blue,” sprinkling tidbits of history into the activities so the campers were learning and didn’t even know it.

It could be something as simple as a daily “This date in history” at the beginning or end of an activity; who knows, the instructors might learn something too. I know it won’t work for all activities but it might be interesting to see which ones it works for.

So, if anybody has any ideas on this, or comments, please share them here with other Weekenders. You choice just might have an impact on somebody’s history.

Randy Gaddo , a retired Marine who also served for 15 years in municipal parks and recreation, is now a full-time photojournalist who lives in Beaufort, S.C.; he can be reached at (678) 350-8642 or email cwo4usmc@comcast.net.

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