Learning local

Thwarted in a late-August weekend vacation by the threat of Irene, we consulted our list of the local attractions we never get around to exploring.  The result was a trip to the historical society museum, which among other stories tells of the shipbuilding that occupied a corner of the city before and during World War II.

I must admit that I get uneasy committing to print a historical reference of any kind.  As many adults I know shield themselves from any need for interacting with numbers, for fear of having their mathematical shortcomings revealed, I tend to steer clear of history beyond the highlights.  The bits of history I know well are thanks not to the curriculum of my childhood but to the path my life took and the opportunities that have arisen to pick up those stories that bear on the work I do.  My commitment to getting dates and particulars of various eras straight came first with a book about the history of women in the teaching profession and later from the need to understand what brought us to the current precarious and deplorable state of education in the developed world.

When I moved here, I found another way in.  I’ve lived many places – places with the kind of pasts that beckon history buffs to come running from far and wide.  But those histories were always hard for me to connect to – lists of dates featuring characters in costume rather than anyone I could relate to.  Here, where I now make my home and plan to stay, there are stories that feel closer.  A map of the neighborhood from the mid-1800s, the story of the man who made the map, what brought him here, the roads that are now named after his family, these are stories I can locate in my own reality.  And the stories start local, but they don’t stay that way. As soon as I know the part the man’s daughters likely took in the building of ships here, I wonder about their connection to what was unfolding across the sea where the ships were headed.  The stories of the map and the welders lead to Hitler, to the war, to the way nothing would ever be the same.

How would my relationship to history be different if – when I was a small child – instead of the names of three Spanish ships and a rhyme with which to remember the year they sailed, I’d been offered first a picture of the hill where our house was built, before they ran the road through a wild pine forest?  What if I’d taken in first a view of history like that one, that my field of vision could hold?  The young people I know are intrigued by what they can see, experience, connect to.  They’re like that without having to be told to be.  They ask questions that can’t help but expand and deepen their knowledge and understanding.

We imagine that we are their only shepherds, but we are at our most effective when we share the shepherding with the formidable forces of human curiosity and craving for connection.

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