Out of the Zoo: “Listening Ears”

Saturday Serve

gracespring Bible Church students pour coffee for Kalamazoo’s homeless population

Annie Thorn is a first-year history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she will be writing a weekly column for us titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It will focus on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. In this column she writes about her experience working with the homeless and how it connects with her study of history.  Enjoy! –JF

When I was in high school, my youth group went into Kalamazoo every month or so to serve our community’s homeless population. We would meet at gracespring Bible Church  bright and early on a Saturday morning, pray together, and head into the city armed with coffee, notebooks, and sometimes a pot of chili or a garbage bag full of winter clothes. When we got downtown we would set up camp next to the railroad tracks between The Kalamazoo Gospel Mission and Ministry With Community, pulling a tent and table from the back of one leader’s truck and loading it up with the supplies we brought from church. Some students stayed at the tent to serve coffee by the railroad tracks, while others split off in satellite groups and wandered down the streets with a pitcher, to pour a cup for any of the homeless men and women who remained scattered throughout the city.

We didn’t usually have much more than a cup of coffee to give the people we met on those cold Saturday mornings. Sometimes we had chili or doughnuts to offer, but we usually ran out pretty quickly. Other times we brought donations of warm clothes to give out, but those didn’t last much longer. We did have coffee though, and lots of it, a notebook to write down prayer requests, and several listening ears.

My youth pastor Kenneth Price taught me a lot through high school, but I’ll always remember his emphasis on learning people’s stories and learning their names. He showed me that the most important part of our interaction with the homeless isn’t the food we serve them or the clothes we offer them, but rather the conversations we have with them. Kenneth challenged us to not only learn the names of our homeless brothers and sisters, but to say them and remember them. We were not there to make ourselves look good or even to save fellow Kalamazooans from poverty, but rather to hear voices that aren’t often heard. By our listening, we offered the dignity, respect, and love inherent in being sincerely listened to.

I know a cup of coffee probably won’t change someone’s life, no matter how I wish it could. As believers, though, I think we are obligated to do what we can to hear people’s stories and to learn their names, no matter what they’ve done or who they are.

As historians I think we’re compelled to do the same thing. No, we don’t serve coffee or hand out warm gloves, but we do go out of our way to hear people’s stories, whether they’re still living or they died centuries ago. We learn their names, and we do our best to remember them. We listen to voices that have been ignored for years, and dig up others that were buried for years. We make eye contact with the ones some might choose to avoid, and uncover parts of our past that others would rather forget. Good historians are good listeners; they don’t have an agenda or some ulterior motive, they aren’t there to save lives or to make themselves look good. They listen.

Out of the Zoo: “National History Day”

Kalamazoo Gals NHD

One of my three National History Day exhibits. This one is from my junior year in high school

Annie Thorn is a first-year history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she will be writing a weekly column for us titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It will focus on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. In this column she writes about her experience as a National History Day judge.  Enjoy! –JF

Hundreds of students, teachers, and parents ventured onto Messiah College’s campus on Saturday for one of Pennsylvania’s regional National History Day (NHD) contests. NHD is a country-wide organization that allows grade school students to research a historical topic and connect it to an annual theme.  Once they complete their research they assemble a project from their findings and bring it to a competition. Students learn how to find and analyze sources, and are given the chance to share what they learned in the format of a paper, exhibit, website,  documentary, or performance.

It’s somewhat difficult to describe a National History Day competition to someone who hasn’t attended one. Picture a science fair, but instead of looking at model volcanoes or potato alarm clocks, you see kids bringing in boards about the assassination of John F. Kennedy or showing home-made documentaries about the Little Rock Nine. I like to think of NHD as a giant pep rally for history nerds of all ages.

On Saturday Boyer Hall and the High Center buzzed with kids anxious to show off their work in competition. This year’s theme, “Triumph and Tragedy in History,” brought in projects of all shapes and sizes, covering many different subjects from a wide variety of time periods. Students swept out the most distant corners of the past; some introduced us to new stories and others developed narratives that were already familiar.

To aid in the ambitious undertaking of hosting a NHD competition, several Messiah students, professors, alumni, and community members were recruited to serve as judges. Assigned to a specific category and age level, the task of the NHD judge is to evaluate students’ projects, chat with them about their topic, ask questions about their research process, and ultimately decide who gets to move on to compete at the state level. I was placed on a team with Derek Fissel, a local middle school teacher, and together we judged a portion of the junior group exhibit category. We got to talk with five different pairs of middle schoolers about the projects they’ve toiled over for the past several months.

My AP US History teacher introduced me to NHD during my sophomore year of high school.  That year I learned basic research skills that remain a foundation for my scholarship today.  NHD revealed my passion for uncovering stories and sharing them with my community. I participated in NHD for two more years in the exhibit category, so judging displays proved very familiar, and almost nostalgic.

I could not speak more highly of National History Day. As a history major and future educator I know I’m biased, but I think something really special happens when kids participate in NHD. They’re given the chance to learn about something they’re interested in, make new discoveries, and show off their findings. No matter how far they proceed in the competition, they’re given the chance to develop practical research skills, pursue curiosity, and channel their creativity to produce a final result. I fully plan on encouraging my future students to participate in NHD and I look forward to coming alongside them as they make their first historical discoveries.

Out of the Zoo: “In Search of Knights, Peasants, and Bandits”

kalamazoo-valley-museum

The mummy exhibit at the Kalamazoo Valley Museum

Annie Thorn is a first-year history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she will be writing a weekly column for us titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It will focus on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. In this column she writes about Medieval history and a museum she visited as a child.  Enjoy! –JF

A considerable portion of my childhood was spent inside the Kalamazoo Valley Museum, a three story establishment filled to the brim with free entertainment and learning tailored to our community. On the first floor there’s a planetarium and a weather exhibit. One half of the second floor is filled with interactive displays that teach physics principles, and the other half contains a life-size timeline of Kalamazoo’s history. The third floor, though, was my favorite–it housed a real Egyptian mummy and had a massive space that was renovated every few months for visiting displays. It was hard to predict what wonders the third floor would contain when we went on our regular visits.

One morning my mom made the 45-minute trek from my house to the museum with her three children in tow. We spent a while visiting our favorite spots; my brother Nate liked building rubber band cars, while my sister and I enjoyed seeing our silhouettes on the thermal camera. None of these compared, though, to the adventure that awaited us on the third floor.

The third flight of stairs opened up to a massive recreation of a Medieval castle and village, complete with costumes and props. It seemed as if half of the kids in Kalamazoo were at the museum that day, immersed in an elaborate game of pretend. Some kids put on heavy aprons and imagined they were blacksmiths, others hoisted swords and served as knights, while still more set tables in the miniature great hall with plastic plates and play food. I can’t say we learned anything about Medieval England that day (most of us were too young to read the plaques) but we were given the opportunity to immerse ourselves in a culture that was foreign to us, and had a little fun along the way.

It’s easy for me to forget that the Medieval time period existed outside the walls of the Kalamazoo Valley Museum or popular fairy tales. Perhaps it’s because many of the books I read and movies I watched as a child were fantasy stories saturated with images of brave knights and fair maidens, but for the longest time this unique period in history just didn’t seem real to me.

A few weeks ago, however, I started taking a class called “Knights, Peasants, and Bandits: A Social History of Medieval England” here at Messiah College. Since then I’ve begun to learn that knights, lords, and ladies were real people who stayed in real castles and faced real hardships. They existed outside of fairy tales, and had lives of their own. The class is helping me come to terms with the strangeness of the past too–I mean, how else would you describe a time period during which nobles hunted with falcons and people built siege engines? However, I’m finding familiarity in my studies as well; I’m discovering the little ways I’m similar to men and women who lived in Medieval England, despite the fact that they walked the earth hundreds of years ago. It’s the job of the historian to reside in this tension between familiarity and strangeness–seeing past fairy tales, empathizing with real people, and accepting the past for what it really was.

Out of the Zoo: “Finding a Calling in the History Classroom”

annie

Annie Thorn is a first-year history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she will be writing a weekly column for us titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It will focus on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. In this column she reflects on how she brings together her passion for history and her passion for ministry. Enjoy! –JF

Like many other college freshmen, when I started attending Messiah College last fall I had lots of doubts–concerning my major, my future career path, and my calling in general. For my first semester I was enrolled as a history major with a concentration in public history. I knew history was something I enjoyed, and something I was relatively good at. I pictured myself working at the Smithsonian or a national historic site someday, doing research or designing displays or preserving artifacts.  However, fresh from a year serving as an intern for my youth group and a summer working as a counselor at a Christian day camp, I wondered if perhaps I would be better suited for ministry.

So what did I choose? Well, by the description of this column you can probably infer that I haven’t switched my major to ministry, but it turns out I didn’t stick with the public history track either. I actually turned down a different path entirely and decided to add a teaching certificate into the mix.

Despite the numerous times adults have asked me if I’m planning to teach with my history major, until this year I never once pictured myself going into education. As a high school student, I was ready to get out of grade school and run away as fast as my legs could carry me. I didn’t think I had enough patience to teach. I convinced myself I would never be captivating enough to hold the attention of 20-30 kids for an extended period of time.

Sometime after high school, though, the walls I had built against any aspirations to become an educator began to fall. Working with kids all summer and learning to keep their attention tore down a few bricks. Being told by several peers that I would make a great teacher destroyed a few more. What made them all come tumbling down, though, was my realization that becoming a teacher had the potential to combine both my passions–history and ministry.

If you’ve read the first installment of this column, you know that one of my favorite things about history is its ability to make the past come to life; by choosing history education over public history, I would still be doing that–except I would be bringing the past to life for kids in a classroom, rather than the general public in a museum. Pursuing a career in education will also allow me to practice ministry. No, I won’t be able to read scripture in class or evangelize from behind my desk (especially because I want to work in public schools) but I will be given the opportunity to represent Christ to my students, their parents, and my coworkers as well and as often as I can. I am a firm believer in the idea that ministry isn’t about the title–it’s about God’s love. If your goal is to show God’s accepting, forgiving, never-ending love to the people you work with, anyone can be a minister, no matter what their profession.

Out of the Zoo: “Remembering Grandpa”

VanHeulen

A few weeks ago we introduced Annie Thorn, a first-year history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our new intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she will be writing a weekly column for us titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It will focus on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. In this column she offers a moving reflection on the life of her grandfather.  Enjoy! –JF

This weekend, I’ll be heading home to Michigan for the funeral of my grandfather, Norman VanHeulen, who went home on Saturday morning after a month and a half of hospice. My Grandpa VanHeulen passed a day before his 86th birthday; recounting his experiences would be a history lesson in itself. However I think there’s a little something more we can learn about history, and about people in general, from the liturgy he practiced faithfully throughout his life.

Historians write and remember. We reincarnate human life on the pages of books, on the walls of museums or in the body of classroom lectures. We set loose memories once thought lost, after years, decades, or centuries of captivity. My grandpa did that, too. Every day for most of his near-century-long life he wrote in black leather-bound journals, which now sit in heavy boxes in my aunt’s storage room. He recorded everything–from an event so significant as the birth of four grandchildren in less than 24 hours, to something so trifling as the price of a cup of coffee. I have countless memories of spending the night at Grandma and Grandpa VanHeulen’s house, playing cards or eating ice cream or watching Disney Channel (my family didn’t have cable) while Grandpa sat in his chair, pouring words into those journals until they overflowed.

Maybe someday I’ll read through all those journals. In my Introduction to History class in the fall we had a long discussion about our family histories–I got to gush about my wonderful grandfather and his own archival work. When I do get to read them, I’m sure I’ll be reminded of the ways my grandpa loved people well for decades. I’ll see that though his life was long, he didn’t waste a minute of it.

One of the fondest memories I have of my grandpa took the form of a short voicemail he left for me one afternoon while I was at school. Exactly a year previous, my grandparents sat on the sideline at one of my soccer games, as they often did when they still lived in Kalamazoo. I remember standing in our dining room as his warm voice crackled through our answering machine. He read his journal entry from the year before, in which he recorded the events of my game. He recalled that I scored four goals and wrote about how proud he and my family were of me that day. To say I was touched by his minor gesture would be a massive understatement. I remember wiping a couple tears from my eyes. He remembered something that I had forgotten about–and not only that, he went out of his way to let me know he did.

To be perfectly honest, I’m not very good at remembering things. The only reason I can remember my siblings’ birthdays is because my brother and sister share mine. It’s not easy to remember things, and sometimes it’s more painful than we expect to look back on the times that we know were difficult. Sometimes it’s even harder to reminisce about the years things were better or easier than they are now. With my Grandpa’s funeral approaching this weekend, I’m sure I’ll experience a little bit of that pain firsthand. Nevertheless, there’s something deeply good and meaningful in digging up our past for others to see–my Grandpa showed me it’s our duty to do so.

There is power in remembrance. That’s what history is all about.

Introducing a New Column: “Out of the Zoo”

annieA few weeks ago we introduced Annie Thorn, a first-year history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our new intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she will be writing a weekly column for us titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It will focus on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college.  Enjoy! –JF

This past fall semester, I joined my fellow Messiah College first-year students (mostly history majors) in a once-weekly night class that introduced us to the discipline of history. The assigned text for the class (Why Study History? by TWOILH’s own Professor Fea) argued that history is the act of reconstructing the past. We learned that as history students–and future historians–we are not responsible for procuring a long list of names and dates to commit to memory, but rather for putting flesh on the bones of the men and women who held those names and lived at those times, bringing the past to life for others to see.

I soon realized, after being introduced to this idea, that I had already been in the business of making history come alive for over a decade. No, I didn’t start reading Civil War soldiers’ diaries at the age of seven, or rifle through important documents at an archive for a fourth grade social studies project, but I did use what meager supply of knowledge I already possessed and combined it with my imagination to craft a picture of what the past might’ve been like. Spurred on by something I learned from an American Girl book, a local museum, or a PBS television show, I found joy through inserting myself into the past–it came alive to me.

I can’t quite explain why I so often entertained myself as a child by imagining what it would’ve been like growing up in 18th century Massachusetts or 14th century England rather than 21st century Michigan, but I think it has something to do with Adventures in Odyssey. My sister and I listened to cassette tapes of Adventures in Odyssey–a Focus on the Family radio show about a Soda Shop owner and inventor Mr. Whittaker–every night before going to sleep. In the show, Mr. Whittaker’s prized invention was a machine called “The Imagination Station” that could transport kids back in time and teach them about anything they could imagine–anything from the story of Moses to the Lewis and Clark expedition to the American Revolution. The Imagination Station made the past real to anyone who stepped inside. I didn’t have a machine, but I used what I did have to make the past as real to me as I could.

Now historians cannot simply replace facts with imagination–we can’t just make up what we don’t know when doing our research, even if it would be much easier that way. When studying history, it’s dangerous to make inferences based off of our own desires or experiences, rather than filling in gaps of the narrative we are constructing with historical context. If we fall into this habit, our imagination can get out of control and we risk resurrecting something akin to Frankenstein’s creature rather than an accurate depiction of the past. In moderation, though, I do think imagination remains an important tool for historians–when we use our imagination, informed by our knowledge, to walk around in the shoes of the men and women we study, the past truly comes alive.

Meet The Way of Improvement Leads Home New Intern: Annie Thorn

annie

Meet Annie Thorn, our new intern!

The Way of Improvement Leads Home blog is happy to announce that we have a new intern!

Annie Thorn, a first-year history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan, has joined the team for the 2019 Spring semester and (hopefully) beyond.  Annie replaces Devon Hearn, who is off student teaching this semester in preparation for her May 2019 graduation.

Annie will be handling our “Morning Headlines” feature and will facilitate the ever-popular Author’s Corner feature.  She will also be helping us with research and other TWOILH assignments.

I first met Annie when she came to my office as a high school senior with an interest in public history. I vividly remember my conversation with Annie, her sister, her mother, and a friend.  She thought Messiah College was a bit too far from home, but I informed her that if my daughter Allyson could travel from Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania to Grand Rapids, Michigan to attend Calvin College then she could travel from Kalamazoo to Mechanicsburg to attend Messiah!  She was convinced. (Or I like to think that’s how it happened).  We often joke about waving to one another on the PA Turnpike as we pass each other going in the opposite directions!  🙂

As a first-year student, Annie is not sure how she will use her history major after she graduates. She is doing a public history concentration, but she also has an interest in ministry.

I am looking forward to working with her.   Please use the comments section, Facebook, and Twitter to welcome Annie to The Way of Improvement Leads Home team!