At the crack of dawn on a recent chilly Saturday morning, several dozen volunteers converged in a faculty room at Carlisle High School. History teacher Kevin Wagner provided an overview to those assembled of how the 2018 National History Day was about to unfold.
The volunteers who were present, myself included, had all agreed to judge student entries at the event. Finalists would progress to the next round at Messiah College. Personally, as this was my very first opportunity to serve as a judge, I was glad to be partnered with a retired history teacher who was beginning her fourth year of judging at the event. It was also nice to see so many volunteers who were willing to donate part of their Saturday for benefit of the program.
As we began the process of judging entries, I was very interested to learn more about the topics that each student chose and the reasoning behind their selections. I thought that it might provide a glimpse into the values and priorities that motivate our emerging young adults. In fact, some of these same students might find themselves remaining in or returning to the local area later in life. Our future community leaders and influencers, so to speak! After all, we’re a town with a mayor who went to Carlisle High School, as well as many other local graduates such as myself who either now have local businesses or who perform key roles in nonprofits and other key institutions in town.
As a general rule, what I observed was that most of the students chose topics that resonated with them on a personal basis. One student described how his family has ties to the Carlisle Airport, and how his ancestor also served in World War II. I had the impression that the research provided a glimpse into his family history that sadly can no longer be obtained first hand.
It’s a situation that is very close to me, given that my own father is in late stages of dementia. His passion for aviation and the key developments in the field from that conflict was made very clear. It was both gratifying and encouraging to listen to students such as himself when they touched on what mattered most. One truly noteworthy example was a student who chose to study Watergate and even managed to make contact with an editor who worked with Woodward & Bernstein, the reporters who broke the story. What a unique opportunity to learn about significant events — directly from someone who witnessed them.
The group projects and displays also provided insight into the care and effort that students devoted to their chosen subject. One student analyzed the “Babes in the Woods” case and did not shy away from considering the less pleasant aspects such as photographic evidence and forensic analysis, as those aspects were relevant to their project.
Another student submitted a very well-constructed representation of the old Cumberland County Courthouse from the time of the shelling of Carlisle, and used its sides and roof to depict her findings and analysis of various downtown sites from that well-known local event. While I did not judge her submission, I did encounter her downtown a few weeks prior as she combed the streets with her father. The students took their efforts very seriously, and as judges we strongly felt a responsibility to provide careful consideration and attention.
We adults often hear generalizations about how the younger generations vanish into their cell phones, how they never spend time outside, and how they only want to watch unboxing videos and parodies of movies on YouTube. Despite such stereotypes in popular culture, the students who I met that morning were all very poised, articulate, and interested in both history and its ramifications for today’s world.
This experience gave me a sense of optimism that today’s youth will go on to accomplish great things, and that our local community will be in good hands in the years to come.