Marking History Helps Dad Teach Values

Great gray clouds drift overhead as a stiff September breeze blows unexpectedly cold air through the holes of my cable-knit sweater.

Standing in the middle of a former Canadian battlefield known as the Plains of Abraham, I am learning more than just the history of the French people who came to Quebec.

I'm learning something I didn't know about my husband, Jim: He reads historical markers — all of them, every word.

It's a habit I hadn't noticed before, or if I did, love blinded me to what this would mean in the years to come.

Now, though, hopping from foot to foot on the sidewalk while the whipping wind slaps my hair into my squinting eyes, I realize this is my destiny from now until eternity. I have vowed to stand with my hands in my pockets, shoulders scrunched to my ears in the posture of one underdressed for the weather, and wait for the man of my dreams to absorb not only the facts that recount the history of a particular place, but its aura, its atmosphere.

He reads. He scans. He transports himself backward in time to imagine what it was like to be here when something significant was happening — something that would merit a marker to be read by future generations.

When finally he grasps the awesome size and scope of the battle explained in bronze and affixed to the side of one rock or another, he shakes his head in appreciation, looks at me as if rediscovering the era in which he actually lives, and says, “Ready?”

This sliver of discovery occurred almost 20 years ago when, on a newlywed jaunt to the lovely French-Canadian province of Quebec, I observed the “historical marker thing.”

It was a surprise to me all those years ago that anyone actually would read all the plaques and signs posted in a park or along a highway, but by now, I have become used to it.

Jim loves history, a subject that plays to his exceptional memory. He's one who subscribes to 19th-century philosopher George Santayana's belief that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” So in addition to being fascinated by historical stories and events, he thinks it's important to recall what he learns.

Because I can't remember what happened last Tuesday, much less on a Tuesday in 1834, I'm not a huge history buff.

For me, history is a “Jeopardy!” category I would avoid in favor of Insects or Kevin Costner Movie Roles. This is why I'm not a person who lingers at historical markers. (There's a credible case to be made for the reverse logic, but no matter.)

A nominal aptitude for history (and an embarrassing lack of interest) not withstanding, I have found as a parent that the “historical marker thing” comes in handy. If you see one, and your children don't notice it right away, you can bone up quickly on tidbits of information to convince your offspring you are all-knowing.

Unfortunately, this only works well when children are young. As mine got a bit older, they figured out that I'm usually not able to offer any greater detail than is conveyed on the marker itself, leading them to conclude that my knowledge base is scant, if not highly selective.

On the other hand, ask any question about history, and Dad will have the answer.

Not just the facts, but the context, the political flavor, the cultural significance. He's the Encyclopedia Britannica of dads, our own personal Google search engine.

I confess that earlier in our marriage, I didn't appreciate this about Jim, what with all the waiting in brutal cold and excessive heat while he read historical markers to add to his remarkable storehouse of dates and data.

But Jim makes the past interesting to our children, and consequently, I'm surrounded by five people whose regular dinner-table conversation might include observations about the American Revolution or the fall of Rome or the building of the Great Wall of China — and not just events in history, but people.

His ability to make history interesting to our children helps them understand the connection between events of the past and the circumstances of our world today.

The cool thing about watching Jim share what he knows is that he teaches our children so much more than just the stories of a world gone by. He teaches them about what he values.

When he talks to them about Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln or Winston Churchill or Rosa Parks, he teaches our children not only about people whose determination and courage marked the time in which they lived, but about the qualities of good character their father admires and emulates.

These days, history is measured in generations, not eras. We name our decades as if slapping on a label gives a period of just 10 years lasting significance — as though epic proportions could ever be construed by a name such as “the Me Generation.”

Historians like Jim understand that history unfolds slowly and that learning about the past is a crucial way to teach the next generation the values that might lead them to future greatness.

Fortunately for those of us who don't remember all the events in history we should, there are markers almost everywhere we go.

(Marybeth Hicks is a writer and author of the features “then again.” and “A View from the Pew.” A wife of 18 years and mother of four children from third grade to junior year, she uses her columns to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families and the communities we share. Marybeth began her writing career more than 20 years ago in the Reagan White House. She currently writes a column for the Washington Times. Learn more about Marybeth and her work at This column first appeared in and is reprinted with permission from the Washington Times.)

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