A woman in her mid-sixties who was working on writing her father’s story told me: “You don’t start thinking about doing this until you get to my age.” But I disagree. Many of us think about the past long before we reach retirement age.
History isn’t just for grandparents and college professors. History is for all generations. Stories about the past have the power to connect us no matter what our age is, or how long ago a story happened.
I’ve been thinking about the past ever since I fell in love with historical novels at age ten. I loved reading about Sacagawea and Clara Barton. My favorite was a historical fiction book called Constance. It was about a young girl who came to Plymouth on the Mayflower. I reread it so many times the cover fell off.
When I was twenty-five I took a job as a historical researcher for a museum. At twenty-eight I launched a rather ambitious community history project that continues to grow today. And at thirty-one I decided to make history my business. I now work as a personal historian. Not only am I interested in my own family history, but I am interested in other people’s histories too, and not just celebrities or historic figures, but the ordinary people all around us. Why? Because I love stories, and when you look at the past you find lots of them.
A young person wrote in an online forum about why she finds history interesting, and it comes down to a love of stories:
I’m in secondary school and I care about history more than any other subject. But everyone else hates it except me. Lots complain [about] it because that they don't see the need of history. They don't see how it affects them. But to me if there wasn't history there would be no present or future, everything’s linked. And you need to look at the past to be able to move forward. Others complain that the classes are boring. I love history. Basically they are stories, stories of real people and the things that have made us how we are today.
Kristine Wagstaff, age 24, is taking a memoir writing class and I asked her, “What motivates you to delve into your past and write it down?”
I realized that I was given a life story that could touch people in the same way that stories touched me. What is the point of all the stuff I've had to go through in my life if I don't use it to help people? C.S. Lewis once wrote: "We read to know we are not alone." And I have started to realize that my story could, potentially, not only remind people they are not alone, but inspire them in some way. Definitely and without a doubt, this experience has been like therapy for me. The ability to accept the things that have happened to me and understand how they have contributed positively into the person that I am now, has a tremendous value to me.
I would like to add that everyone carries inside them a worthwhile story, no matter how much they've gone through in terms of traumatic experiences. I think sometimes young people just don't realize this.
So looking at one's personal history can be a healing process, and also provide inspiration to others.
Perhaps history needs a new look to appeal to a younger generation. Lists of facts and dates are not all that exciting, but stories have universal appeal. If we can engage young people in the stories of history we can help give them a greater understanding of the world, their family, and how they can contribute to society.