Jennifer Orr is a first-grade teacher in Virginia. Recently she took a trip to the home of Mason Locke Weems, the itinerant bookseller and Anglican minister who is famous for his hagiography of George Washington. Weems is responsible for a host of American myths related to Washington, including the story of George chopping down the cherry tree and the story of George praying in the snow at Valley Forge.
Orr is less interested in these myths and more interested in the way that the Weems house has triggered her own historical curiosity. In the process, she makes a good argument for why historical sites matter and should be preserved. Here is a taste:
...Talking with our daughters, ages eight and five, about the house and its most famous owner as we walked the halls where he once walked and stood in the room in which George and Martha Washington stayed on their honeymoon trip to Mount Vernon, I found myself thinking very differently about Parson Weems. Surprisingly I was putting him in a clearer historical context and feeling a personal connection to him.
I began to think more about why he wrote his biography of George Washington in the way he did. Today such a biography would be discredited and seen as shameful. Two hundred years ago it was different. The question of accuracy was not viewed in the same way it is today. Stories told for the purpose of sharing a moral were widely used and accepted.
It has been several weeks since we visited Parson Weems’ home and I am still thinking of it frequently. We’ve done some research and reading about Weems and the area in which he lived. I now have a much better understanding of his time period and his life than I did before our visit.
Experiencing history as a learner rather than as the teacher was a wonderful opportunity. Asking questions, genuinely wondering what something meant or who someone was or why something happened and learning the answers, or not, was exciting. It was a reminder of what history can be for students if we can make it real, meaningful, and relevant for them.