#912: The Raw Stuff of History

April 9th, 2018

The Civics Room at Lane Tech High School was filling on Saturday morning, but it was filling from the back.

The weekend schoolers were shuffling in with notepads and folders, looking around and, one by one, heading toward the farthest spot from the woman who was about to step up to the mic to say “There are spaces up by the front” to the room full of professional educators, historians and me.

Even teachers don’t like to sit in the front row.

Over the weekend, I had the opportunity to judge the junior division of the Chicago Metro History Fair, a yearly event in which sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders across the greater Chicago area conspire to make me feel old and dumb. For the event, students prepare reports and displays on events, people and social movements that forged who we are as Illinoisans today.

The exhibits were astounding. They were beautiful or fun, exciting or interesting. One pair turned their project on the 1940s malaria experiments on prisoners at Stateville into a 3D, spinning model of the cylindrical prison. There were Lego replicas of the Eastland disaster, historical photos

The topics too were amazing. Yes, there were more than a few Al Capones and river reversals, but somewhere in this city, there was a junior high school student who heard “local history” and thought, “More grownups need to know how the FBI used COINTELPRO to attempt to destabilize the Black Panthers.” “I’ll talk about muckracking journalists who improved working conditions at the stockyards.” “Someone at my middle school should lionize the Jane Collective.”

These were children.

“Our goal today and in the future is that no one cries,” joked one of the organizers during our orientation. “Except for me. I’m allowed to cry.”

In our orientation, as an Abe Lincoln impersonator worked the room and a professional educator sitting across from me doodled a cat on her folder when she was supposed to be paying attention, we heard about “the raw stuff of history” and “the aboutness.” The raw stuff is the primary material — the old photos, the interviews, the documents that have been sitting in some government archive since John Quincy Adams calligraphed “Classified” on some Treaty of Ghent material that might look shady in retrospect. The aboutness is the secondary material — the books written on topics, the articles, the textbook entries and the other ways people have processed history so we can understand it.

The aboutness awaiting us in the gym was a room full of posterboard, glue, citations and glitter. The kids who created these worlds for us to explore, rank and judge, they’re the raw stuff that’s going to make history.

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You are currently reading #912: The Raw Stuff of History by Paul Dailing at 1,001 Chicago Afternoons.

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