Last Saturday, I had a discussion with a middle school kid about Plutarch’s inherent source issues, the problem of projecting modern sentiments onto people or time periods in the past, and the cultural practices of 1st century B.C. Egyptians. If we’re being completely honest, this kid intimidated me. He was performing at a high-level of historical analysis at an age when I was still watching Sponge Bob and debating with my childhood friends over the best way to make farting noises with only a hand and an armpit. No, I didn’t find this kid at some reclusive private school in the mountains being trained by monks with long, hoary beards. I found him, and a number of other bright youngsters, at Messiah College during the South Central Pennsylvania regional competition for National History Day (NHD)
This was my first year judging for NHD, and it was a blast! I judged about fourteen different websites for the middle school division, and I was absolutely blown away by some of the contestants and their projects. I’m going to highlight three contestants in particular in order to give you a glimpse at some of the amazing hearts and minds I had the pleasure of meeting.
First, there was Jocelyn (not her real name). The theme for this year’s NHD was Leadership and Legacy, and Jocelyn developed her website around the push for women’s equality during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. During the interview I asked her what her most useful primary source was during her research, and she instantly answered, “The Declaration of Sentiments.” She then proceeded to tell me and my judging partner all about how she discovered this topic and what it meant to her as a young woman growing up in a world much different from the foreign one she had been researching for the past six or more months. Her passion was palpable and it was fantastic to see someone so lit up over their research!
Next, there was Caleb (not his real name). This little guy developed his website around Branch Rickey and his creation of the farm baseball system in the 1920s. He was thoughtful and articulate during his interview, and he only spoke after he had taken the time to really think about his answers. One of the best parts of the whole experience was when he started talking about Rickey’s push for black players to be integrated into the new farm leagues and how amazing he thought that was. “Most of my favorite players aren’t white,” said Caleb. “If it weren’t for Rickey and the courage those black players had, I couldn’t cheer for guys like Pujols or other African-American players today.”
Finally, there was Owen (again, not his real name). Owen’s website focused on Cleopatra. Here is the thesis found on his website’s home page: “Cleopatra VII’s determination to face Roman imperialism as a female in a male-dominated world, intelligent use of cultural and political allies, and cunning use of intrigue reveal her depth and honor as a leader. As such, Cleopatra’s relentless commitment to the Egyptian world in the face of an aggressive and powerful conqueror reveals a queen who stands out as one of the most significant and admirable leaders of the ancient world.” His argument was thoroughly revisionist – debunking the popular perception of Cleopatra as merely a seductress who meddled in Roman politics during the end of the Late Republic – and mature. As I said in my opening paragraph, his interview was just as impressive!
Last Saturday I had a discussion with a group of little historians. I’m thankful for a competition like NHD where kids can hone powerful historical skills, and I’m already looking forward to next year!