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the boy historian

Scott Tennyson was ready for the history exam. He was sure he knew all the answers. He had crammed for two hours the previous evening, and he reviewed his notes before leaving for school in the morning. Scott was confident when he arrived at John F. Kennedy High School. "Bring it on," he thought to himself.

Besides, if there was any subject he knew cold, it was history. Scott loved the subject. Stories of the past intrigued his 16-year-old mind. Movies and TV films with historical themes were his favorites. He collected DVDs of movies and TV series with recreations of the past.

In particular, Scott enjoyed reading about U.S. presidents and their accomplishments; but his fascination with history was far-ranging. From the ruins of Ancient Egypt to the Emperors of Japan, Scott liked to sample everything. And that interest did not escape his friends at school. They referred to him playfully as The King of All History. And he enjoyed the title because history was Scott's identity at JFK.

Still, as he sat in Mrs. Sweeney's fourth-period class with a 25-question test in front of him, his self-assurance was suddenly shaken. Question 15 was a tough one that he couldn't answer immediately. It made him stop and ponder:

Who was the President of the United States when the Gadsden Purchase was finalized?

A) James Polk   B) Zachary Taylor   C) Franklin Pierce   D) James Buchanan

Scott was a little stumped. He had flat-out forgotten the date of the Gadsden Purchase. He remembered reading about that acquisition by the United States of territory along the border between Mexico and Arizona. But, if he couldn't remember the year it occurred, it was impossible for him to link the event with the man who was President at the time. He knew it happened before 1861 when the Civil War began, but his mental checklist of pre-Civil War events failed to trigger his memory. The Dred Scott Decision, the Missouri Compromise, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Mexican War—he knew all of the historic milestones. But who was president when the Gadsden Purchase was completed?

As time was nearly up, Scott reverted to the fallback strategy familiar to puzzled students everywhere: he took an educated guess. Debating in his mind between Franklin Pierce and Zachary Taylor, Scott finally decided on James Buchanan as the answer. Why Buchanan? Because Buchanan was D on the list and Scott had marked D as the answer to only two other questions. As he figured it, the people who wrote the test surely must have used D as an answer more than twice. He used his pencil to fill in the circle next to President Buchanan's name just as Mrs. Sweeney announced that time had expired.

While his classmates yawned and stretched to bring circulation back to their cramped hands and arms, Scott feared that his reputation for perfection was about to take a hit. He would soon find out because Mrs. Sweeney immediately asked the students to exchange answer sheets in order to grade each other's work. Then, in a soft, precise cadence she began to announce the correct answers. “The first answer is B,” she said. “The answer to question 2 is C. The answer to question 3 is A.” She moved relentlessly from top to bottom as students dutifully marked incorrect answers with a large X.

The grading was quick and for Scott, brutal. In less than five minutes he discovered that Franklin Pierce was President when the Gadsden Purchase was completed. And to his amazement he learned that he had missed a second question, this one about the opening of the Civil War. He had selected Fort McHenry as the site of the first military clash between rebellious Southern states and the government of the United States.The correct answer was Fort Sumter.

Two wrong and 23 correct. Not bad for anyone. But not perfect. For Scott, however, it was devastating. He tried not to let his classmates see the disappointment in his face. Fortunately, the bell rang and Scott rushed off to the cafeteria to eat lunch and deal with his wounded pride.

The remainder of the day was filled with typical school demands. After lunch there was an English class, then physical education, then a meeting of the Service Club, an extra-curricular group to which he belonged. This schedule was helpful to Scott as a distraction, but not enough to make him forget those two mistakes.

A few of his friends kidded The King of All History about his errors. The taunting was irritating, but not as painful as his self-criticism. As he walked home along busy Huron Boulevard, Scott couldn't stop berating his performance. He had prepared elaborate lists of dates and events and committed all of them to memory. He was proud of his ability to remember historic details, but his skill had failed him today. Certainly, he realized that missing a few answers on a test was not the end of the world. But he didn't like it.

So deep was his preoccupation, Scott passed First Avenue where he always turned on his way home. It wasn't until he reached Third Avenue, an unfamiliar street, that he realized his oversight. However, rather than go back two blocks he decided to turn on Third. It's in the same direction, he figured, so it should be no problem.

He was surprised, however, as he moved down the new route. Everything seemed different. Scott found himself passing many unfamiliar stores: a bakery, a bicycle store, a café, a dress shop, and several boutiques. These were small businesses that he had never seen before. They were not at all like the gigantic supermarkets, car dealerships, and big box stores on First Avenue. He had lived in this city for four years since moving with his parents from a small town in an adjoining state. But now he felt as if he were strolling in an alien land. It was bizarre. “A time warp, that's it, I must be trapped in an episode of The Twilight Zone,” he joked to himself.

As he continued walking Scott became fascinated by one intriguing establishment in particular. Set back about 25 feet from the sidewalk, it was an imposing gray Victorian house that appeared to have been converted into a store. It reminded him of those large haunted houses he had seen in old scary movies. But it was the name over the entrance that really attracted his attention: THE HISTORY SHOPPE.

“How cool,” he said aloud, “but, what's The History Shoppe?” Scott wondered what kinds of products were sold in a store like this. He decided to find out.

The pathway from the sidewalk to the front door was paved in uneven cobblestones. Even more old-fashioned was the small high-pitched bell that rang when he opened the front door. Scott had seen retro items like this in old black-and-white movies, but he was a boy of the American city in the 21st century. He was used to walkways smoothly paved with asphalt or concrete. And tiny bells never sounded when he entered Wal-Mart or Best Buy.

It was a little dark inside the store, so it took a few seconds for Scott's eyes to adjust to the lack of light. The first images to register with him were elaborate tapestries attached to the walls. He stood amazed at the scenes depicted on these large hanging carpets. Woven into the thick woolen fabric were likenesses of animals such as lions and unicorns. On several tapestries he spotted castles and other aspects of ancient royalty. But there were also everyday people. In a wide range of social activities from centuries ago, they were shown dancing, hunting, working in the fields, crushing grapes to make wine, and feasting.

One of the tapestries especially attracted him. It was a large hanging that covered an entire wall. Under the motto Fortis et Fidelis was a scene of medieval knighthood and chivalry. Here, finely-dressed noblewomen stood next to strong warriors, some in full armor, and others with swords or spears. In a royal box a king and some of his followers waited for a pageant to begin as pennants waved in the wind and horses were poised for jousting. Above this scene of grandeur were hovering angels appearing to add religious approval to the great event.

The colorfulness of the hangings also attracted Scott. These must be really old, he thought, but they're still so vivid. The tapestries reminded him of the comic books he used to collect. The comics also used bold colors and illustrations to depict the lives of superheroes and commoners. The times were different, but the effect was similar.

When he took his first steps into the store, Scott's attention quickly shifted from the wall hangings to the plush carpets on which he found himself walking. Thick Oriental rugs bearing elaborate designs covered most of the old wooden floor. He could see geometric patterns of flowers and leaves. Unlike the wall hangings, however, the carpets had no images of people. Instead, they were totally preoccupied with colorful motifs: swirling vines, blossoms, and kaleidoscopic medallions everywhere bursting forth in rich shades of red, yellow, blue, and green.

It was a remarkable experience, unlike any store he had ever visited. Just as he began to think he had mistakenly entered someone's private home, Scott spotted wooden shelves stuffed with old books and magazines and, in front of the shelves, several glass cases filled with merchandise, all of it marked for sale. He knew, too, that these items were for sale because there was a large old cash register set to one side of the cases. For sure, this was a store, he concluded, but what an awesome place. It's a trip back in time. This is fantastic.

As he approached the display cases, Scott heard a noise from another room. “Oh, it sounds like a customer. I'll be right there,” a man's voice called out. “Wait just a minute while I put on my sweater. I'll be with you in a jiffy. Just make yourself at home, and continue browsing. Blasted buttons on these cardigans; sometimes I fasten them in the wrong order. I'll be there is a second.”

As he was invited, Scott approached the glass cases with anticipation. He was not disappointed. Before him was an assortment of historical items for sale. Among them were ancient coins and medals, colorful postage stamps, buttons from election campaigns, bubble gum cards, faded newspapers, and yellowed political pamphlets. It was a treasure chest of memorabilia that captivated the young customer.

“Oh, hello. Sorry I took so long,” said the old man who emerged from the side room. “I always have trouble fixing up this sweater. Must be my arthritis, or maybe I'm always in too much of hurry.”

In Scott's assessment, the proprietor was old, at least 70 years old. He was a short gentleman with reading glasses pinched to the tip of his nose. His hair was thick, white and somewhat in disarray. Still there was something comfortable and non-threatening when he spoke with his unrecognizable foreign accent. “Well, young man, welcome to The History Shoppe,” he stated in a friendly but exaggerated manner. “Here, we offer you the story of the world as reflected in artifacts from long ago. Whether you're looking to learn about the recent events or about centuries long gone, we have materials here that will enhance your knowledge of the past and feed your understanding of the present.

“I am your humble shopkeeper, Professor Petros Papadopoulos, Master of Arts, Doctor of Philosophy, and Professor of History Emeritus. Don't be fooled by that last word,” he assured his visitor, “emeritus only means that I'm retired from the university. And you are?” the old man asked as he extended his hand in introduction.

“Oh, I'm Scott Tennyson. I'm a freshman at Kennedy High School,” the boy responded as he reached forward to shake the Professor's hand. “I've lived here for several years, but I've never seen your store before. Have you been here a long time? ”

Scott didn't wait for an answer. He was too excited by the world he had just entered. “History is my favorite subject in school, so when I saw The History Shoppe sign I had to come in. This is my first time here.”

“Terrific, Mr. Tennyson, or I should say, Scott. May I call you Scott?” the old man asked. “You may call me Mr. Papadopoulos, Professor Papadopoulos, Professor, Dr. Papadopoulos—or just plain Dr. Pop. That's what my students at the university used to call me.”

Scott was impressed by the relaxed formality of this encounter. “I've never met a real Professor before. It's a privilege to meet you, Dr. Papadopoulos—I mean, Dr. Pop,” Scott replied. “This is an unbelievable store. I'd love to look around. Maybe I can afford to buy a few things.”

“I hope so,” the old man responded. “What seems to interest you?”

“Well,” Scott explained, “I love the tapestries I saw when I first came in. They're like pages from historical comic books.”

The Professor was amused. “They're not exactly comic books, but they are artistic depictions of olden times, and they do tell stories” he said, motioning Scott back toward the entrance of the store. “In this large tapestry you can see what it was like to be part of a king's entourage at an afternoon joust in 15th or 16th century France. Knights and ladies, armored warriors and their handlers—there is great tension in this scene much as there was in medieval European society. Think of this tapestry as a mirror of feudal life. And that phrase, Fortis et Fidelis, says it all. It's Latin for Strong and Loyal. The route to survival was through personal strength and loyalty to royal authority.”

“It must be really expensive,” Scott remarked. “These tapestries are very intricate—and centuries old. The craftsmanship in them must be lost nowadays.”

“No, they're neither old nor originals, but they're not inexpensive,” the Professor explained. “They are reproductions of much earlier works, but those you see here were woven in Belgium only a few decades ago. That's why they cost thousands, not hundreds of thousands, of dollars.”

The Professor directed Scott's attention to a pair of tapestries, one with a unicorn, and the other with a lion standing on its hind feet. “These two are very interesting,” he explained. “These are copies of sections from a group of very large tapestries called The Lady with the Unicorn. The originals were commissioned by a wealthy aristocrat as a gift to his beloved. They were woven about 1460 in France, and today they are on public display a famous museum in Paris.”

“Just look at them, young man,” he pointed out, “there is much to be learned here. Unlike the realistic images in the Fortis et Fidelis wall hanging, these two communicate medieval beliefs and values symbolically.” The Professor continued, “Look at that white horse with a twisted horn growing from his forehead. This is the unicorn, an animal that never existed in reality. However, he was a familiar character in popular fables during the Middle Ages. To the people of that time the unicorn signified holiness and moral cleanliness. Wherever he appeared, there was purity.”

The Professor continued his explanation, “On the other tapestry, there is a roaring lion rearing up on his back legs. This is the so-called rampant lion that is so much a part of ancient coats of arms. He represents manly valor, strength, and honor. The lion asserts power and ferociously faces all challengers.

“And don't overlook the smaller animal images in the tapestry,” the Professor added. “You will notice the rabbit, well-known for producing many bunnies in a lifetime. The rabbit represents reproduction. And, note, too, that there is a lamb. The lamb is a classic Christian symbol. In the Bible who is called the Lamb of God? Of course, Jesus Christ is the Lamb of God.”

Scott's head was filled with colorful images and the lesson he was receiving in medieval symbolism.

“Now, Scott, notice that both the rabbit and the lamb are white in color—the same color as the unicorn. That was done on purpose by the tapestry makers. In Western Civilization white symbolizes innocence, truth, and purity.”

Scott clearly understood the Professor's interpretations. “Wow, it sounds like these is all part of an elaborate gift, maybe a wedding or anniversary gift, from a wealthy man to his wife or bride-to-be,” he suggested. “Through these symbols the man seemed to say that their relationship was pure, children would result, and their life together would be blessed by God. Am I close?”

“Bravo, Scott. I am impressed with your interpretive skill,” the Professor exclaimed. “For such a young man, you are most perceptive. But, you can take it one step further and assume that purity and valor, family and religion were prized values in 15th century society. So, the wall hangings you originally compared to a comic book turn out to hold much for us to learn about them and their times. You give indications of a great historical mind, my young friend. I'm very impressed.”

Scott was pleased with himself, too. His chest swelled a bit as he thought about the Professor's praise. He was beginning to reestablish his shaken confidence. He was again becoming The King of All History.

As they walked back toward the memorabilia display cases, the Professor inquired about Scott's attraction to the past. “Tell me about your interest in history,” he said. “Do you have a favorite period? Are there historical figures that you prefer? Maybe you have a country to which you pay special attention?”

“Well, I like American history most of all,” Scott answered. “I can name the presidents in order. I've had them memorized since I was eight years old. But I guess I like all kinds of history. I don't know too much about world history, but I'm open to everything. Just don't ask me about the Gadsden Purchase or Fort Sumter.”

“That's good,” the Professor replied. “I'm happy to learn that your interest in history is so broad. Too often people only want to know about their own country's past to the exclusion of everyone else on Earth. Familiarity with the history of foreign nations and peoples allows us to understand better ourselves as well as the rest of the world.

“But what's this about the Gadsden Purchase and Fort Sumter?” Dr. Pop asked. “Why should I avoid asking you about these particular aspects of United States history?”

Scott was a bit embarrassed as he explained to the store owner how he had missed two questions on his exam that day, and how he felt his reputation as an expert had been diminished in front of his classmates. “I knew those answers. I memorized the Presidents and their greatest achievements in office. I just mixed up Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan. And on Fort Sumter, I just forgot for a minute and named the wrong fort as the starting point of the Civil War. But, I'll study the textbook even harder for the next test and get all the questions right, even if I have to commit the entire book to memory.”

Dr. Papadopoulos observed the boy's face as Scott explained and rationalized his academic collapse. “If I may, let me tell you something,” the old man responded. “It's impressive that you recall the order of the American presidents since Washington. It shows that you have a retentive mind. And your enthusiasm for history is very admirable. Most people your age don't like the subject. May I suggest, however, that you're going about it in the wrong manner?”

“History isn't about memorization. Computers and encyclopedias do that. They are warehouses for storing information—more information that you could ever learn. History, however, is about knowing the past. It's about understanding the past. It's about interpreting the past. And this is accomplished only by embracing the past. You have to immerse yourself in history so much that you really live with the subject.

“If I may get a little personal,” the Professor continued, “You don't memorize the names of your mother and father and brothers and sisters, do you? Instead, you remember their names because you know the members of your family. You're thoroughly familiar with them.”

He continued, “Well, the same holds true for any history you choose to study. You must live with it, become family with it, and welcome it into your personality. That's the only way you can remember history. That way you don't memorize. Instead, you know it because it is part of you.”

Scott was taken aback. “My teacher doesn't speak like that about history,” he responded. “Mrs. Sweeney follows a regular pattern. For homework she assigns us chapters to read in our text. In class we talk about what we have just read, and sometimes we even read out loud from the book. After a few days of this routine, she gives us a multiple-choice test to see how much we remember.”

“Oh, Scott, that's such an unproductive way to teach or to learn history,” the Professor replied with a touch of sadness in his voice. “A good memory is an advantage in any endeavor, but when it's the primary method of learning it's inadequate and misleading. Dates can be memorized, certainly, but they're merely guideposts of historical order—a means to an end, not an end in themselves.

“Take some famous dates: 323 B.C. the death of Alexander the Great, 1066 the Battle of Hastings, 1492 Columbus discovers America, 1775 the American Revolutionary War begins. These are years in which important events happened. But as isolated dates, they don't tell us anything. Alone, they should be reserved for timelines in almanacs or “This Day in History” websites. They're not really history,” he continued.

“It's a lot more complicated. History is the story of existence through time, especially human existence. Wherever there have been humans, and there remain records of their existence, there is history. We can do dinosaurs, or glaciers, or even the Earth itself,” he elaborated. “But people are the primary focus of history as we understand it.

“It's important, however, to recall that people are not all the same; they are good and bad—and most are both good and bad. People are not simple, Scott, and that means that history isn't simple either. It is complex, even confusing, and it demands careful study and evaluation.”

Scott was transfixed as Dr. Pop continued his lecture on the nature of historical scholarship. “Let's consider human motivation, Scott,” the Professor said. “When humans act, they do so for a variety of motivations. Usually, they act because of one of two reasons. First, they may be compelled by real, material forces such as hunger, self-defense, greed, and legal responsibility. For example, a hungry boy might steal food, or a greedy nation might invade a wealthy neighbor to steal its riches.

“The second motivation is an emotional one,” Dr. Pop continued. “This includes feelings and beliefs—things that are intangible. These may include hatred, religious beliefs, a taste for adventure, patriotism, even emotional instability,” the Professor declared.

“The first motivation we call materialistic because these pressures for acting are tangible and obvious: they are material. The second we call ideological because these motives stem from ideas, which are intangible, abstract, even spiritual. Historians study these two historical forces, and every human combination in between. And believe me, Scott, there can be a lot in between.”

Dr. Papadopoulos then offered an historical instance. “For example, I offer you this interpretative dilemma: when industrial Westernization and Christianity came to Japan in the late 19th century many Japanese citizens—particularly those embracing the newer Western ways—abandoned their traditional faiths Shintoism and Buddhism and converted to the religion of the Westerners. Some historians explain these conversions as a means to an end, a calculated way for individual Japanese to enhance their careers and social status in the new economy because Christianity was Western. But, other scholars suggest that many converted because they actually came to believe the new religion. In other words, these Japanese accepted Christianity because they were convinced it was the truth—not because they were seeking to improve their social status or enhance their incomes. What's the correct answer? Is it one or the other or somewhere in between? Can we ever know for certain?”

Scott was attentive to everything the Professor said. “Well, Dr. Pop, I sure wish you would talk to Mrs. Sweeney,” he said. “At school we don't have much time to study anything in detail. We have a school year to cover the entire history of the United States, and then for only 50 minutes per day. How can I ever know a subject with such limited exposure? How can I make the colonial period in U.S. history a part of my being when in a week or two we have left that era, moved through the Revolutionary War, and are studying Jacksonian Democracy, then just as quickly we're preparing for the Civil War? There's not enough time to know.

The Professor seemed startled by Scott's explanation. “Sadly, you are right, young man, there's not enough time to know. It's unfortunate, but true. Educational systems everywhere are extremely superficial in the way they teach many subjects, none more so than history,” the old man explained.

“Students must be immersed in history. Instead, we do the equivalent of sprinkling them lightly with a garden hose in hopes that a little moisture will inspire them to become long-distance swimmers,” said the Professor. “It seldom works out that way. In fact, in my years at the university I encountered many young people who actually disliked history. When I asked why, they always said that it was because there were too many dates to memorize.”

“That's surprising,” Scott interjected. “Even with a little exposure I still love history. I liked history even before we studied it in school. In fact, when I grow up I'd like to be an historian. I'm not sure what an historian does, but I'd like to be one.”

“That's a noble thought, Scott, but there is a big difference between a history buff and an historian,” the Professor suggested. “They think differently. The history buff is like a participant at a large feast. He or she eats a little of this, a little of that, then leaves the table as full as he or she wishes to be. An historian is like the chef at that feast. His or her concerns are the quality of the ingredients, the preparation, the spices, the precision of the cooking time—all the considerations that must be properly balanced to produce a rewarding meal. Both people are necessary to the success of the feast, of course, but one is the trusting diner, the other is the trained producer of the banquet.”

The old man had Scott's complete attention.

“Do you know that old philosophical question: ‘If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is there to hear it, did it make a noise?” Well, that old question applies to history,” Professor Papadopoulos said. “If an event happened but there was no evidence to prove it, did that event actually happen? And, you can add to that: even if there is recorded evidence of something happening, did that something really happen if no one investigates that evidence and writes about the occurrence, or makes a documentary about it, or otherwise communicates it to a public audience? Think about it, Scott, your answer is important to your future as an historian.”

Scott had been attentive throughout the Professor's mini-lecture, but he was confused. His entire understanding of history had been challenged. He had entered The History Shoppe confident that he understood what the subject was all about. Yet in only a few minutes, the Professor had upended his certainty. This was much more troubling than missing a few questions on a weekly history test. This was catastrophic.

The Professor, however, immediately recognized Scott's dismay. “If you would like, young man,” he declared, “I would like to help you comprehend what I'm saying by offering you a challenge, an historical challenge. It will require time and thought from you. But, I promise it will be worth it. Are you up to such a dare?”

Scott was a little startled. But it took him only a few seconds to accept the offer. “Yes, I'm game. I enjoy challenges, and you've confused me a little about history,” he replied. “What are your the terms?”

With a twinkle in his eye, the old man explained. “For one week I want you to live with a piece of historical evidence. I want you to take it with you everywhere. Study it carefully. Learn all you can about it. Then, come back here and we'll see what that experience teaches you.”

Scott was curious. “Sounds like fun,” he said. “What history book or books would you like me to read?”

“No, I don't want you to read a history book, unless you feel it's necessary” the Professor quickly replied. “Books are wonderful. But they are someone else's cooking. Don't get me wrong. It's important to know what other writers think of an historical subject, but I want original thought. I want you to investigate and bring together all the information about the artifact I will place with you. Start thinking like a chef, Scott, and you'll start thinking like an historian.

“Let me see what I'll give you,” the old man said as he lifted the hinged top of one of the merchandise cases. He fumbled around in a container of old coins until he retrieved a large brown piece and handed it to Scott. “I want you to take this one. I will tell you nothing about it except, as you will plainly see from the date on the coin, it's from 1791,” he said while passing the coin to Scott. “Take this piece home with you. Live with it for a week. And when you return, I want you to tell me as much about it as you can. In other words, I want you to know this coin when you come back to The History Shoppe next Wednesday. Is it a deal?”

“Deal!” Scott responded excitedly. “This should be fun. I can't wait,” he said as he began to inspect the old coin.

“Not here,” Dr. Pop interrupted. “Take it home and examine it there at your leisure. Remember, make it part of your family.”

Scott was enthused by the challenge. “OK, I'll do it,” he said. “I'll be back at The History Shoppe after school next week.”

With that, Scott Tennyson gestured farewell to the old Professor and moved toward the entrance. “Goodbye for now. See you next week,” he said as he left the store.

Scott had started his visit on a note of dejection following his performance on a school test. And now he was leaving with his understanding of history in confusion. But his intellect was energized. This will be an interesting week, he thought, as he walked along the cobblestone pathway and turned on Third Avenue heading home.

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