Moments in History: Educators, can you make history come alive?

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In the early 1960s, The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show included segments entitled The Incredible Adventures of Mr. Peabody. With the help of a “way-back machine,” the dog genius and his adopted human son Sherman were whisked back to a moment in history, sometimes saving the day. As schools rev up to start the new year, I was thinking how much fun—and relevant—it would be if students could go back in time to a historic event, even as an observer. After I posted a request on Facebook, many shared with me of their own hypothetical adventures in time travel.

Steve Sconfienza, who has worked as both a pilot and a flight instructor, would take the way back machine to December 17, 1903, in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.There he would see first hand the moment that Orville and Wilber Wright became the first people to accomplish powered flight. For centuries, many had always believed that human beings could find a way to fly. On that historic day, the two brothers, whose interest in flight had been sparked by a rubber band driven toy helicopter their father had given them twenty-five years earlier, flew the first successful airplane. “Although not the first to build and fly experimental aircraft,” states Wikipedia, “the Wright brothers were the first to invent aircraft controls that made fixed-wing powered flight possible.” Steve, a flier since he was sixteen years old, viewed the Wright Brothers’ accomplishment as “a real triumph of humanity’s reach for knowledge.”

Sherri Mackey, a woman whose deep faith has shaped her own strong voice regarding social issues, stated she would go back to the early twentieth century’s suffrage movement and be present for the certification of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment on August 26, 1920. Sherri reflects, “I can only imagine the joy for women that had fought hard for the right to vote.” Sherri continues to work to ensure that that right is not somehow diluted by folks with alternative agendas. “We must teach our daughters to embrace their equality,” she stated,”and to protect and defend their equal rights just as diligently.”

Sharon McLelland dreams of  being at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore Maryland on November 1, 1938, to witness firsthand Seabiscuit’s victory over War Admiral At what was billed as the “Match of the Century, “Seabiscuit,  described in Wikipedia as “undersized, knobby kneed, and given to sleeping and eating for long periods” was the underdog who became an unlikely champion and regarded as a symbol of hope in a country that was fighting its way out of the Great Depression.  Sharon, who once lived near Pimlico, now happily lives near Saratoga Springs, “the queen of the tracks!”How fitting for a woman who as a child had pictures of Secretariat on her bedroom walls!

I would take Mr. Peabody’s machine to the debut of West Side Story on Broadway on September 26, 1957. Oh how I wish I were sitting third row center, when the world was introduced the this American classic! Seven years old and three hundred miles away, I listened to the cast recording my father had purchased for me the week Leonard Bernstein’s masterpiece debuted. For years, I played and replayed the 78 rpm— “Something’s Coming,” “Maria, “and the absolutely stunning duet “Tonight”—until I wore out the groves. If I could be Somewhere,  it would be at the Winter Gardens Theater that opening night.

After decades of speculation as to who would finally accomplish the track and field milestone, Roger Bannister became the first person to run the sub-four minute mile at the Iffley Road Track in Oxford, England, on May 6, 1954. Larry Shapiro became interested in track and field in junior high and  read numerous articles and accounts and the runner’s 1955 autobiographical account, The Four Minute Mile. As he has shared with me since we have know each other, Larry wished he had been there when Bannister crossed the finish line with a time of 3:59:4. For his efforts, Bannister was named the first-ever Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year. Just recently, Larry found on YouTube a grainy black and white video of the race with Dr. Bannister himself doing the voice-over. Larry was ecstatic. Fittingly, a copy of Bannister’s book still sits on our bookshelf.

Rabbi Beverly Magidson would be transported to Jerusalem after Israel’s victory during the 1967 Six-Day War. She would like to have stood at the  Kotel, when the Western Wall came under Israeli control. Late Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin described it in a speech to Knesset in 1995. “Nobody staged that moment. Nobody planned it in advance. Nobody prepared it and nobody was prepared for it; it was as if Providence had directed the whole thing: the paratroopers weeping — loudly and in pain — over their comrades who had fallen along the way, the words of the Kaddish prayer heard by Western Wall’s stones after 19 years of silence, tears of mourning, shouts of joy, and the singing of ‘Hatikvah.’”At the time of the war, Rabbi Magidson was in high school and only vaguely aware of the Kotel’s significance. However, in 1969 she saw it for the first time at a quiet moment in the late evening, and it was a powerful spiritual experience.

When Woodstock, the iconic four-day rock/love fest, took place in August 1969, Barbara Peterson was a 29 year old stay at home mother with three young children. At the time, she was married to a controlling man who thought hippies were disgusting druggies, and she was a dutiful, strait-laced wife. This all changed in 1972, when Barbara divorced her husband, went to rock concerts, and became liberated.“That is when I really regretted missing that historic moment in cultural history.” said Barbara. She has thought about going back to the planned fiftieth anniversary event, but she said it wouldn’t be the same.

The Wright Brothers. Women’s right to vote. The first sub-four minute mile. West Side Story. The Western Wall. Woodstock. Historical moments that have resonated and remain important in individual lives. As the new school year begins, may our children’s teachers help students find their own iconic moments in history.

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