The best reenactment experience that I’ve ever had was in 8th grade. I was lucky to have a really meaningful historical reenactment at such a young age, in fact I ended up writing my college application essays on that historical reenactment and the activities that developed out of it. This experience that I’m being so vague about was actually a unit for both Eighth Grade Social Studies and English that incorporated lessons in computers too. Every eighth grader at my middle school spent a quarter of the school year (well it seemed like a lot back then) participating in a program called: “Immigrant.” For an entire unit our soul task was to write a journal from the perspective of someone from Ireland during the potato famine of the 1840s and 50s who emigrated to the United States. Not that most of the immigrants would have been literate, but the point was mostly to get us thinking and experiencing the immigrant’s perspective, and also thinking about how to articulate something as complicated as the choice to pick up and leave one’s homeland for unknown territory.
The teachers had done a phenomenal amount of research to set up the unit. There is not a ton in middle school text books on the Irish potato famine, or at least not enough to base an entire unit of study. Nowhere near what an eighth grade class would need to write journals for more than a month. So the teachers had to rely on sources written for adults, they had to guide us though a culture and economy far removed from even Nineteenth Century America, let alone 20th century America. They ended up sharing a lot of primary materials with us, the first time I can remember learning history from primary sources. Our most important primary source was the ship’s log from a vessel that made the voyage across the Atlantic from Liverpool to Boston with a cargo full of Irish immigrants. Everyone in the class got to pick a family off the ship’s log, so the journals were not just from our imagination but represented real people.
The reenactment did not end there. In order to simulate the ship voyage, we spent an overnight in the computer lab, reenacting the voyage from Ireland to the United States. The teachers divided up the computer lab into two parts. What was normally the classroom part became above decks, where we first boarded the vessel and where we had our meals. The computer part of the lab became the ‘tween decks, where the immigrants were crowded into narrow bunks. They had sea noises playing in a loop on a tape deck that, as the evening wore on, they would switch to babies crying. I swear half my classmates wanted to cry themselves when the tape with the babies was playing. The teachers dressed and acted as the crew of the ship, being all gruff and harsh to the poor Irish that were their cargo (the captain reminisced about the voyage in the other direction -- Boston to Liverpool -- where the lumber in the ship’s hold kept nice and quiet.) They fed the students meager meals (actually we were fed quite well, but the power of suggestion is an amazing thing.) And as the evening wore on they did give more classroom-style lectures (short ones) on ship conditions and the plight of the Irish on board a sailing vessel.
Students got to do their own reenacting beyond writing journals. I dressed up for the voyage; no one else in my class did, though they were not surprised to see that I had. We all had to sign our own version of the ship’s log, recreating the act that was our key to the past. We ate meals and got to know the families that were bunked near us. Most alarmingly, we were given family updates. Little slips of paper that told us which members of our family were ill and, as the evening/sea voyage wore on, which ones died on board ship. We then got to experience a ship funeral, and afterward have a lively discussion about Irish Catholicism and what it meant to not have loved ones buried in a cemetery, but tossed overboard with only the Protestant ship’s captain leading a service. Late into the evening (actually not that late, but with the windows covered it felt very late) the teachers shut off the ocean sounds tape and played us a song. A sad ballad with lyrics taken directly from letters written by a father left be hind in Ireland writing to his son in America. It resonated so deeply with me, that I can still sing a few snatches of the song though I have not heard it in well over ten years.
What a bare recitation of the facts can not reveal is how deeply involved we all got. As we started our journals it was fun to put in details about the list of names we had been given, to make them into actual families. When we were writing abut the decision to leave Ireland, to leave beloved family members behind, it was easy to get involved in the tale. When immersed in the recreated world below decks it was easy to forget about the modern world, to get caught up in the mood. I can still recall very vividly the feeling that we were doing something that was real, that that each and every one of us now had a stake, an ownership in a time and place other than our own.
Maybe the experience sticks with me because thirteen is an impressionable age. Maybe it is because once I was out of the eighth grade I came back every year to help out the next class. Maybe it is because my “Immigrant” experience included editing a book of journal excerpts, even taking a trip to Ireland my junior year of high school that the initial event stands out so strongly in my mind. I like to think it was the first time that I became aware of the full potential of historical reenactment as a key to the past.
In every reenactment that I have participated in since “immigrant” I have been trying to recapture some of that feeling. I find myself striving not just toward accuracy in the trappings of a reenactment, but more importantly a connection with the feelings of a place and age not our own.
Photos: Ty Houston as the Ship's Captain, Larry Bickford as the First Mate, Alena at Blarney Castle.