Have you ever wished you knew exactly what the Pantheon was and why it was important (and whether it’s the one in Greece, or the other thing in Rome, and come to think of it didn’t the French build one too? Was this Pantheon phenomenon the first ever franchise?) Ever catch yourself wondering why exactly we celebrate Memorial Day, and how it is different from Veteran’s Day? How about all the choices and chances and chiefs of state that, together, gave us exactly the world we live in now?
Until recently, frankly I did not. My mind occupied itself with work, current events, friends and our growing family.
I was no history illiterate, for sure. Broadly, I knew about the Ancient Egyptians. They lived around the Nile, built some pyramids and didn’t one of their queens have snakes in her hair? Loosely, I knew some facts about the Romans. Beware the Ides of March! Of course I was familiar with modern US history. Europeans chastise Americans for knowing so little of the world around them. Maybe I was just fulfilling my global duty to stick within the stereotype.
In our family, my dad is the history buff. I interested myself more in the whys of the here and now as compared with the wheres and whats of the past.
In grade school, the curriculum theme changed annually. One in particular stands out because of its preposterous name: The Non-Western World. Why not just the Eastern world? Or why not focus on specific continents? The idea of Eastern and Western hemispheres always seemed a bit arbitrary, anyway, given the properties of a sphere. I learned what I needed to ace my exams, then promptly forgot it all.
History was for my dad, who of his own volition read the 600-page Gettysburg the Second Day and The Soldier Kings: the House of Hohenzoellern, a short read at under 450 pages.
The birth of our second daughter provided a key inflection point in my relationship with history because it offered these two critical ingredients: (1) a big ol’ maternity leave, in New York, in the spring and summer; and (2) a nearly three year-old who eagerly agreed that everything I taught her was “so cool, Mommy”.
I must admit to a prolonged case of nerd that, after a five year remission during which I met and married my husband, became even more pronounced after the second daughter popped out. Apparently my fascination with almost everything I could learn and explore started young. When I called my preschool teacher to ask her advice in selecting a suitable nursery for our first daughter, she not only remembered who I was — 25 years later — she said, “of course I remember you, Susan! You were interested in everything!” Then we talked for 45 minutes about the Montessori philosophy.
The two girls and I started little trips around New York. To make each museum and landmark a true adventure, I weaved in a bit of a history or science lesson appropriate for her little ears.
We walked all around the spaceship aboard the Intrepid. So cool, Mommy.
We visited the Natural History Museum to learn how science and exploration can teach us about creatures that no human has ever seen in person. No photos, no video, no Instagram, and yet we still know that dinosaurs existed. So cool, Mommy.
We toured the Statue of Liberty, the one of the more delayed gifts in world history. Perhaps out of a mutual disdain for Britain, the French fancied offering a present to the US in the late 1800s. Then they got embroiled in a tiny thing called la Revolution, which essentially caused the Statue of Liberty to be put on permanent back-order. France asked the US to help raise money for its own present. Can you even imagine if Santa asked for a deposit on gifts?! The countries collaborated on financing by putting the Statue’s disembodied head and arm on display in Philadelphia, and shipped the rest in crates to be assembled on a small island near Manhattan. So cool, Mommy!
Preparing adventures for my daughters has given me a whole new lease on learning.
All of a sudden, the whats, wheres and whys of the past impact the things we see today. In a less intense sort of way, I became my dad.
When your children are hungry for adventure, the greatest gifts become experiences instead of toys. For our older daughter’s fourth birthday, my parents gifted her a day trip to Giverny, to be claimed during a Mommy-daughter trip to Paris. No present has ever brought more joy, for both of us. For weeks before departing, we read Linnea in Monet’s Garden and learned the sometimes scandalous and always interesting story of Claude Monet’s life. We had already seen many of Monet’s paintings in New York museums, and of course on the internet. Better was seeing the master’s inspiration in person.
The holidays have rich stories, every fact has a concomitant back question. Thanksgiving alone provided abundant lessons about the world before accurate internet maps, sea voyaging, religious liberties, relations with Native Americans and how a celebration becomes a holiday (in the case of Thanksgiving, it took a thirty-year writing campaign by Sarah Josepha Hale, the American editor and author of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” for the day to be declared a national holiday).
A simple question about what her American cousins were doing right now launch a weeks long discussion about time zones and the Earth’s rotation. What time is it in New Jersey? In Jersey? How about Rome? And Russia? What do you mean it’s several times at once in Russia?
I should have paid more attention in history class. When I was a curious, overly-confident and independent young thing, I remember asking teachers and family why we had to learn about history since, by definition, it’s already done and wouldn’t it be more useful to study political and social theory so we can understand things as they are now and as they will be?
History repeats itself; you must know history to understand our world now.
The teenage Susan ignored this advice. Sure, if you happen to like intra-War German history, I guess it could be cool. But I always thought my dad, who chose to read multiple books on this and other seemingly esoteric subjects, was a little weird in his penchant for the past.
Now I am just grateful that he knows. When Dad visits the UK, he offers our four year-old little gumdrops of history like “do you know why the London bridge fell down? The Norwegians pulled it down,” followed by an engaging story. I learned from him that history is only as educational as it is entertaining. As a moderately historically literate parent, I often find myself researching stories just hours before our adventures start. I find the interesting, funny, scandalous facts that make history’s story one worth retelling. How many naked people can you count on the Sistine Chapel ceiling? Did you know that Monet married his best friend’s wife? Want to know why it never rained in the Pantheon?
When you ask the questions that children ask, and wonder whether the Pantheon / Parthenon was history’s first franchise, you start to see the big themes, the stories, the crazy cool reasons why people still study history even thousands of years after the plot has played out.
My younger daughter and I participated in a Tiny Explorers class at Kensington Palace earlier this fall. The theme was Peter the Wild Boy, a child who, rumour has it, was discovered living among wolves in a German forest at age 12 and was brought to the Palace of King George of England. Before we saw the mural featuring Peter and King George at the Palace itself, before we became British residents, this story had no meaning to me. Inside Kensington Palace, with the gilded ornamentation and endless ballrooms, the story took on new meaning. Can you imagine moving from a forest without shelter, running water or a ready supply of food to this immaculate palace??
I can now, but only because my children taught me how.