Early in my grad school career, I mentioned to a fellow researcher that I had no idea why I was studying religion when I had set out to study immigration, except that this new subject was where the documents had led me. "It will be personal," she said. "It's always personal." I agreed that she must be right, but it took me a while to figure out why.
Of course we learn most avidly when we can connect what we learn about the past to our own lives today. But the connections aren't always obvious.
I should have been interested in California history. After all, I lived in California for many years, starting as a teenager. I loved the Golden State and its people. And I was indeed fascinated by the 20th century history of Sacramento, especially the Japanese-American internment and the story of my own high school. But, in my teens and twenties, I never could get worked up about early California history and, Lord knows, I tried. I took classes. I haunted Old Sacramento, the remains of the Gold-Rush era city, gussied up in the 70s and transformed from Skid Row to tourist trap. I dutifully visited Sutter's Fort, the original settlement of Sacramento, and various Gold Rush era sites, from Malakoff Diggins to Nevada City. None of it really sparked my imagination.
But that was then, and that was thirty years ago. Last week, I started a dive into a book of excerpts from the diaries, memoirs, and fiction of women in early California. I was fascinated by the vivid reminiscences of women who made the terrifying journey across America by covered wagon, leaving behind forever their friends and families, for a life among strangers. That part resonated. Much of their journey, however, was alien to my experience: Their day-to-day stresses were many, including disease on the trail, fears of attacks by Indians or robbers, and contemplating running out of water in the desert or freezing to death in the Sierras. Vividly described, their accounts put into perspective my recent scary bumpy flight from Sacramento to Atlanta. Reading, I felt a particular kinship with the British woman who,like me, had long been resident in the United States, but whose restlessness was at least as great as her husband's, and who continued to seek new pastures in her adopted country. I also recognized the feeling of liberation that comes from immersing oneself among strangers in a strange place: I've lived in six very different places in my life.
There's always a balancing act between teaching what kids think they like, and exposing them to new ideas in the hope that some will connect with their lived experience. That's why, rather than focusing on "instructing" kids so they will "know" history, I focus in all my work on exposing them to as many ideas and topics as possible, and invite them to draw comparisons and contrasts between their own lives, and the past, hoping that at least some of them will resonate. While plots keep my books from ranging too widely (although you will note that I am especially fond of road trips in my novels), my schools presentations may seem scattershot at times.
But that's by design: They're not meant to be persuasive academic essays, but rather efforts to press buttons, to make my subject resonate as often as possible, with as many kids as possible. Education really begins when someone or something inspires us to willingly pick up a book.
Academic & Public Historian, Middle-Grades Author (The Snipesville Chronicles), Practitioner of Non-Boring History, Mother. AnnetteLaing.com