Last month I was asked to participate in Roebuck Elementary's annual Career Fair. It was really fun and also pretty enlightening. To prepare, I typed up and photocopied some handouts and gathered up a few artifacts... still not entirely settled on how to handle the presentation. I haven't had much experience with fourth graders since I left the fourth grade, so I didn't know what level of comprehension and background knowledge they would have. I knew the general concepts I wanted to cover but beyond that, figured I would just play it by ear.
When I got there, they shuffled me along to the media center where they assembled all the presenters and filled us up with coffee and bagels. It was pretty funny to look around. I think kids have a pretty skewed exposure to the types of careers that exist and are common. At least when I was that age, I remember talking more about zookeepers and cartoonists than about distribution managers and sales representatives. Well, in looking around the room, it was clear that selective forces had already been at work. There were nurses and pharmacists and photographers and farmers, but not very many representatives of boring but more common jobs. Everyone also seemed to be trying to fit into what a child would see as their role. I know I thought about it when I got dressed that morning. I wore a red plaid shirt and a brown corduroy blazer with khakis. Pretty typical fare for me, but it definitely had a deliberate academic air. The other presenters were doing the same thing, though. Policemen in dress uniform, nurses with a stethoscope, the whole bit.
After a mini-interview on their closed-circuit morning news, I went off to Mr. Green's fourth graders for my first of six 20-minute presentations. I ended up having a few components to my spiel. I impressed upon them the value of local history and how it could have as much or more relevance to their lives than national-level history. Then I discussed kinds of resources useful in my job, and I wrapped it up by talking about how to gather and preserve family history.
I was really surprised at how well it went. They paid attention and asked questions and were generally very interested. After each presentation, half a dozen or more would come up to me and hurriedly tell me about some family story of theirs, or plead to look closer at the Civil War-era diary I brought as an example. I left there thinking how much potential there is to sow the seeds for a more widespread interest in local history. They had just been learning about the French and Indian War in social studies, but I could tell it was distant and irrelevant to them (no big surprise there). On the other hand, they were fascinated by seeing old photos of Spartanburg and were eager to orient themselves ("ooh, that's where Wild Wings is!!").
It was really encouraging, not only to actually expose these kids to an interesting field, but to see how receptive they were. I think there is a real opportunity to get local history into schools again, especially once teachers see how it can make their social studies curricula sink in. Plus, an early interest in local history could help encourage hometown pride, which could be good for the local economy and help retain the talented kids who are too often eager to leave when they turn 18. Other benefits include a greater interest in historic preservation and better support for local history institutions. Is there a career opportunity here?