Yesterday my fifth graders participated in a Living History Museum at school. It was a project they’ve been working on for some time that started with a question: what historical figure (who’s had an impact) would you like to know more about? They did research, prepared display boards about their chosen person, and then they were tasked with writing speeches to deliver AS the historical figure.
My daughter chose Marie Curie. This is not a surprising choice for her as she is quite the scientist. She was excited to play an important female scientist for her project. My son, who has always been really into ancient history, chose Ramses II (sometimes called Ramses the Great), an Egyptian pharaoh. Again, he stayed true to form in his choice.
I watched them both struggle with finding the information they needed. I quietly observed as they tried to find stories that would make their presentations particularly interesting. I listened to them practice their speeches (from afar – no peeking allowed). Everything was going swimmingly, until we got to the costume phase.
My daughter had no problem. She looked at a bunch of photos of Marie Curie, noted that in all of them she was wearing a lot of black, that she wore dresses and that she wore her hair in a bun. She was able to abstract an idea of what she should wear that would give the overall effect, and that she already had in her closet. Easy peasy. You have to know what’s coming…
My son didn’t seem to register that costumes were part of this whole thing. He caught on eventually as his classmates began to talk about their preparations. I kept approaching him for a conversation about what he might wear. The problem with an ancient historical figure is that there are no photos. There are guesses, approximations. My son really doesn’t like guesses and approximations. He also wasn’t thrilled to discover that much of what was available to us in the way of guesses looked like dresses to him. Being an 11 year old boy can be a rough road.
After he rejected a few of my homemade notions, we ventured out to our local Party City, the only source for costume type items when it’s not Halloween. He was visibly horrified by his options. I attempted to logic him out of that. He became downcast. I got impatient. His sister played helpful clown for us (and I mean that in the best way) by demonstrating some truly ridiculous options. As he withdrew, my daughter and I assembled some pieces that we thought would reasonably approximate the ancient ruler. He finally rallied a little to examine what we’d chosen. He agreed that we had done the best we could with what was available and was even enough of a sport to try some things on before we left to make sure it would all work out, but the energy about the project had left the building. He was visibly upset about the whole thing.
Later, when his sister was elsewhere, I asked what was bothering him, why he’d gone from SUCH enthusiasm about this whole thing to seeming like he’d rather do just about anything else. “It’s the other kids Mom; they’re all going to laugh at me.” And I saw it in his face, the fear that idea creates. The sentence sort of echoed in my head. It really is at the heart of most of our fears, isn’t it? “They’re all going to laugh at me. They’ll hate it. They won’t like me. Nobody will want to be/play/spend time with/work with/marry/date me.” Rejection. Dismissal. Humiliation.
So we talked. We talked about why he chose Ramses II. We talked about his character. We talked about how excited he had been. We talked about the historical figures the other boys had chosen (“All of their people just wear suits. They all picked famous businessmen.”). I reminded him that he chose someone interesting to HIM. I reminded him that he chose someone he wanted to know about. I reminded him that he gets to be who he is and be interested in who he is. And then, just for good tween measure, I threw in the fact that probably most of his classmates would feel awkward and silly in their costumes too. They would all be nervous about giving speeches. “Did you like learning about Ramses?” The answer was a resounding yes. He liked learning about ancient Egypt. He liked the historical figure he chose. It was all about the laughing.
I comforted him. The Mom in me nervously assured him that people wouldn’t make fun of him as they would likely look silly in one way or another, but I knew that might not be true and that it also wasn’t the point. It was just that moment.
So I tried my best to do the other things he needed me to do. I tried to let him get it all out – all of the fear, all of the worry, without talking him out of it the whole time or making him feel silly for having it. And then I tried to make him feel good enough, wonderful even, for being exactly who he is.
It worked well enough. He put on his full costume (which I’d show you but both of my kids have recently banned us from sharing pics). My seminarian and I went to school at the appointed time so we could see the presentations. They were great. All of the kids were dressed up and had obviously worked very hard.
When I went to my young man and pressed the button that was supposed to animate his historical figure I was delighted to hear a fact-filled and really funny speech. I was so proud and he was all smiles. I asked later who his favorite was (he said: “You mean besides my sister?”. He replied, of course, King Tut.
He was who he is. He got scared. He was afraid people would not like it or him and would embarrass him, humiliate him. None of that happened (although it could have). But he got to the end of the day proud of himself and thoroughly engaged in his learning. It was a thing of beauty and a great demonstration for this light worker that the fear is never enough reason to stop being who I am, no matter what all of the other kids might think.