When I was in 5th grade, my mom volunteered to chaperone a class field trip to Murphy’s Landing, a so-called “historical reenactment park” in Shakopee (SHAH-kə-pee), Minnesota, about an hour outside the Twin Cities. The $7 dollar admission got you through the gate into an old-timey town where failed actors dressed in chaps and linen dusters mimicked the motions of 19th century Minnesotan life, pumping well water into buckets, squeaking out Thoreau quotes on the schoolhouse chalkboard, sneaking behind the horse stables for a Camel Light or two. Girls had the opportunity to go into the adjacent field to do “squaw work,” a glorified and unmistakably racial term for scrounging around the bushes for strawberries. Boys could work the register at the General Store or brush, one at a time, the half-blind horse, James J. Hill, named after the famous railroad magnate, and sedated by the proverbial trough of half-eaten Twinkies proffered daily from small, sweaty hands.
If we lived in a world where logic prevailed, there should have been no drama whatsoever in Shakopee, the recreated or present day version. The leading cause of death among residents was unbroken boredom. Teachers in the Midwest picked field trip destinations as much for safety as for any learning potential. While my camp friends in the East got flown out to DC for class trips to the Lincoln Memorial, our typical field trip consisted of being shuttled to the school gym, where we sat passing around a box of croissants while Mrs. Luftsen played Edith Piaf and showed slides of the Eiffel Tower, asking us, “Can you just imagine?”
There are several schools of thought on how to teach history, how to make it “come alive” for the young minds of Generation Attention Deficit Disorder. Teacher handbooks are chock-full of exercises intended to Ouija up the dead past. Divide your students into two groups. Instruct one group to stay sat their desks and quietly complete an extra assignment, while the other group gets to go outside early for recess. Students will get a small taste of the injustice of American slavery through this exercise. Repeat the exercise the next day, switching the roles of the student groups. Lesson: It’s Much More Fun To Be A Slave Owner Than A Slave.
In the hippy-dippy private schools of the DC-area that educated some of my closest college friends, classrooms were morphed into grandiose courtrooms. Someone’s mom or dad who worked in the judicial system donated robes. From an eagle eye view, fifth graders took on the sophisticated air of a Thorne Miniature set, doll versions of Henry Billings Brown and John Marshall Harlan debating the boiled-down points of Plessy v. Ferguson. Later, the popular girls claimed “separate but equal” segregation when they locked the girls’ room door to gossip during lunch.
Living history. That’s the name of this movement in education. It’s the alternative to filing into a windowless maw, tornado-safe for the prairie landscape, and learning rote facts. Minnesota has 90,000 miles of shoreline, more than California, Florida, and Hawaii combined. The Hull-Rust mine in Hibbing became the largest open-pit mine in the world. Instead, truck your cherubic little butter queens and farm boys out to an ennobled slash fiction performance of Little Trailer Trash House on the Prairie. Usually it’s an appreciated lapse in the monotony of K-6 life, save for the rare times when it results in a somewhat embarrassing phobia of historically costumed men, encompassing all breeds from Shakespearean thespians to Civil War farbs.
Upon entering the Murphy’s Landing schoolhouse, before finding space on the splintering wooden benches, we were instructed to write our name in the ledger with a feather pen. The room was hot and buzzing with flies, much like the 19th century, I imagine. The schoolmaster in charge resembled Donal Logue, had Donal Logue made a few bad life choices, like maybe living in a tent outside his mother’s RV, importing Asian porn mags, and drinking himself to sleep on ethanol. My mom stood a few feet behind me as I wrote my name neatly in the ledger. When I finished I looked up to meet the bloodshot eyes of the schoolmaster crouching before me. His costume cravat was velcroed so loose in the back it hung on him like a necklace.
“Let me see your palms little lady,” he demanded in an affected British-Western accent, origin to this particular region of Minnesota unknown.
I extended my palms towards him. THWACK. There was a gust of air and a stinging sensation on my left palm. I looked down at the hand with which I had just gripped the feather pen. There was a ruler-width, lobelia-colored welt. It was throbbing.
My flabbergasted mom rushed to my defense.
“What in the heck is wrong with you? You just hit a child!”
Schoolmaster Logue turned around to face her, wearing an expression of such condescension and self-importance it could make masturbation look like an act of altruism. He simply refused to break, “Madame, we will not allow left-handed penmanship here. Your charge, she writes with the Devil’s hand!”
They went back and forth a few times. I’m not sure whether it was the oddly intimidating religious overtones, his booming voice confidently spouting anachronisms, or the feeling that all eyes in the sickly hot schoolhouse were bearing down on her, but after a few minutes, Mom gave up. She sat down next to me and held my uninjured hand. Her expression was like nothing I’d seen on her before. Exasperation Incarnate.
Oddly enough, there are a bunch of historical reenactment groups in Minnesota, dedicated to drudging up wars and national events we were barely a part of. The MN chapter of 55th Regiment of Foot portrays British soldiers during the American Revolution, a time when the area was still a part of the Northwest territory, meaning, for the most part, the British soldiers stationed there were selling furs, not shooting Yanks. But reenactors find a way to fire guns. Take the Muzzleloading Club of the Twin Cities, for example. Every Memorial Day they take to Murphy’s Landing to shoot black powder rifles into the air, commemorating a holiday by representing an era pre-dating the emergence of said holiday. There’s no point in reliving history if the living is mundane.
Once in a while I’ll get a momentary prick of anxiety when I pass a highway billboard advertising a Renaissance Fair, or when Braveheart is playing on TBS. Most recently, it hit when I was vacationing in Montreal earlier this summer. My boyfriend and I were ambling the trails of Mont-Royal Park when we came to a noisy clearing where a collection of fifty or so chainmail-clad men were swinging bountiful swords in the air, fighting a dementor army. An audience of bemused park-goers lingered on the outskirts of the field and a few damsels in velvet empire-waisted gowns shouted what I suppose were medieval encouragements like “HOY HOY HOY.” I fought my urge to bolt. My boyfriend wanted to watch for a minute.
A few moments later a pudgy-faced toddler of modern times broke away from his family and ran over to one of the sword-wielding knights. My immediate instinct was to reach out and grab the kid’s arm, scolding, “We do not do that, okay? We do not get in cars with strangers, we do not poke unattended doggies, and we sure as hell do not touch men dressed in historical garb.” But the boy’s biological mother chased after him smiling, and my self-restraint put enough constipated dread in my eyes that my boyfriend, beholding it, asked, “You wanna keep walking?”
I nodded, and took out my cell to text my mom, “I love you.” She wrote an hour or so later, “I love u too! Are u having fun?” I told her the truth, “Saw a LARPer earlier” and she replied instantly, as the only person in the world that understood what that meant, with a “:( “