Sunday, August 1, 2010

Floored

2003 grad school reflection

A few months before my fifth birthday, my family moved from Washington D.C. to the South Shore of Boston. Like any kid facing a move, I felt a little sad and somewhat apprehensive. In an attempt to lift my spirits, my mom told me we were moving into a “nifty” (her word) old house and that I’d have a very “special” room. Being the gullible little sheep that I was at five, my eyes grew wide, and I perked up. I didn’t really understand what she meant at the time, but for the moment I felt better. Within a couple of years, I would come to appreciate her description a great deal more. It turns out that a rather banal feature of that very “special” room in that “nifty” old house transformed my entire outlook on the subject of history: the floor.

By age eight, I owned my first pair of tap shoes, and my parents’ one requirement was that I not tap in my bedroom. Aside from inducing headaches, I’d be scratching up the floorboards, which it turned out were original to the house – constructed in 1789. For some reason, this factoid began to fascinate me. I became fixated on my floor. I’d fall asleep at night wondering what sorts of shoes had scuffed the floor before mine, and furthermore, what were the people like who had worn those shoes? Did a girl my age ever live in this room? Did she also like to dance? Did she have a big brother like I did? I wanted to know. So one day I approached my parents with the reasonable request to “tear up the floorboards in my room” to see if anyone from the past 200 years had ever left a diary. My parents managed to contain their laughter and instead offered a compromise. They led me upstairs to the attic and let me rum amok.

Our attic was a bit of a maze, with closets, wardrobes, various rooms, and lots of dark corners. As the house was a rectory, the many generations of residents before us had left countless items in boxes and on shelves. In the three years we had lived there, my parents hadn’t even had a chance to sift through everything themselves. So with flashlight in hand, acting as a mini-Indiana Jones, I began exploring the space. There I discovered old National Geographic magazines dating back to the late nineteenth century, a bottle of cough syrup from a pharmacy on Boylston Street in Boston from 1896, dusty (rather ugly) old paintings, and countless books. I also found old ginger ale bottles, a big sealed barrel, and a pile of chains in a corner. While the heat, dust, and sheer monotony of looking at “old stuff” might have driven away 99% of eight year-olds at that point, my imagination was running wild. What was in that barrel? Why was someone drinking cough syrup in an attic? What the heck were those chains used for? And once again, I found myself asking, is there any chance that someone left a diary amidst all of this so that I can learn their story?

Well, I never did find a diary in that attic, or anywhere in that house, but I never did lose my curiosity to let people from the past tell me their story through their “stuff” and through their own words. Indeed I went on to complete a historical diary-based thesis my senior year in college. I also went on to develop a strong passion for studying the more personal side of history, connecting objects and primary sources to the people who created and used them. I went on to admire authors like David McCullough who successfully humanized historical figures through his research and writings. Finally, I went on to grad school with the hope of using technology to make history more engaging and accessible to students by connecting them with the images, sounds, and writings of different eras.

It’s possible that I would have developed an appreciation for history no matter where I grew up. However, I am certain that that “nifty” old house and that very special room triggered a precious, unique fascination with history, and more specifically with the human experience. While here at HGSE, and hopefully in future endeavors, I hope to develop projects that will humanize history, bring its characters to life, and help students connect with the experience of living in the past.

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