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Reflections: Teleported to the Common

It’s the Friday before school is out for the summer. Two classes of second-graders sit in the shade of a tree on the Common. Teachers and Historical Society volunteers stand on the perimeter of the circle. Feeling a bit like the proverbial deer in the headlights when Mr. Snell tells his students, “All eyes up here on Mrs. Phillips,” I begin.

“Let’s imagine it’s a long time ago. The year is 1732 and we are gathered here awaiting news from Jonas Atherton, coming on horseback from Boston to tell us if we can be our own town. And here he comes now.”

“Where, where?” Heads turn and a few children stand up. “I don’t see him.” “Where is he?”

I realize I’ve made a serious tactical error. “Oh, well, he’s imaginary, but . . .” A boy is waving his arm. “Yes?” I say.

“My little brother has an imaginary friend.”

I go on. “We have just been told that we can be our own town. And we’re about to hear what the name of our new town will be and how it was decided.”

I nod to the girl who’s popping up from the ground like a jack-in-the-box, with her arm raised.

“My aunt Jane just had a baby and they couldn’t decide what to name it and my uncle John got really mad because he wanted it to be called something my aunt didn’t.”

“That happens sometimes. But in this case, the name. . .”

“What’s a case?” I pretend I can’t hear.

I tell them about the first meetinghouse and that the second building on the Common was a tavern. Mr. Snell asks who knows what a tavern is. I field a series of creative—but wrong— answers and am left with the awkward task of describing a tavern. I’m seized by a vision of that evening’s family dinner all across town. “What did you learn in school today?” the mother will ask. Since it will be years yet before that question will be met with a sullen shrug and a mumbled “Nothing,” the second-graders will answer brightly, “We learned all about taverns.”

We split into four groups and each group goes to a different side of the Common. Their task is to study a picture of that view of the Common as it was 150 years ago and compare all the ways in which it is different from what they see now and to speculate why those changes happened. My group goes to the east side, where I’m excited for them to see that the large, white building in their 1787 picture is no longer there and in its place is a brick building. I‘m hoping they will figure out that the wooden hotel burned. But the roofing equipment at the old library obscures our view. Though cars are going by, no one comments that the picture shows horses and buggies, and when someone finds a baby bird hopping on the ground, that’s it for the history lesson.

The groups meet back under the tree to report their findings, and we do another activity identifying structures on the Common. They leave; we break for lunch and then do everything all over again with two different classes of second-graders.

The other volunteers say they had fun and they think things went well. But I’m pretty discouraged, thinking the activity wasn’t that interesting to the kids and wondering if they’ll remember anything other than a tavern.

A few days later Mr. Snell drops off a packet of individual thank-you cards from his students and group cards from the other classes. I can imagine one of Mr. Snell’s students jumping up and down with hand raised: “Is this what they wrote in the olden days?”

The “Dear Historical Society” cards make up for everything. One is a drawing of tall trees with round green tops, and between them is a line of stick figures holding hands. I love this image of togetherness on the Common. They all thank us and say they learned a lot, many of them mentioning something specific, like the pound, the powder house, the school that was moved—and even the hotel that burned. And no one mentions a tavern.

I’m elated reading one that starts, “I learned a lot it was the best field trip”—and only a bit disappointed when that is amended to—“well the 2nt best field trip ever.” The one that has me still laughing reminded me of when I was an interpreter at Fruitlands farmhouse, and once after I finished my spiel, a woman, who I noticed had been listening attentively, said to me in leaving, “You’re so historical.” This second-grader said things were really interesting and they all learned a lot—but there was just one question: “How did you get to the Common?”

Carlene Phillips, author of “A Common History: The Story of Harvard’s Identity,” is a regular feature writer who pauses from time to time to reflect on the humor in the everyday.

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