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.