Unlocking the “I Love History” Gene

Posted on: June 4th, 2012 by Priya Chhaya 17 Comments

I didn’t just fall into my love of history. My parents had some part, teaching me about my Indian heritage through language, music, and dance, and instilling in me an awareness that we all come from somewhere. But it wasn't until I took a course called "Applied History" in high school that I realized history was more than just a given interest -- it was something I actually love.

A few years ago I was given the opportunity to speak before a group of history teachers about that course. My talk was part of a keynote address by my history teacher, a man who inspired countless students to acknowledge the value of history in the world around us.

I chose to focus on what I learned in that course -- how learning about the tangible fabric of history impacted each of my senses and opened my eyes to real life, to a world beyond the words in a textbook.

But my speech was just as much about the teacher who chose to spend his career inspiring others, not just through the coursework, but also by his actions, attitude, and passion.

It's hard to believe that those lessons are almost fifteen years old, and that my teacher, Jim Percoco, is retiring after over thirty years in the profession. His career is an inspiration to me because considering why history is important helps me do my job every day.

Here's a quick passage from my aforementioned speech:

The course opened up a sixth sense: you know, the one that allows us to see dead people and make them live again.  This is the sense that lets us see the past as something tangible and worthwhile, something with meaning, and worth saving. Something with relevance not only to pass a test or to have random facts in our heads, but really to understand why we live the way we live, and that the past really defines our present. 

I love history because it gives me a vision for the past, the present, and the future -- a vision that's complex, but also something I can see myself being a part of. I wasn't the most confident kid. I struggled, as most teenagers do, with the trials and triumphs of becoming an adult. Yet seeing myself as a part of a broader continuum and recognizing -- through our travels to historic sites and subsequent conversations on history -- that an individual can make a difference affected who I've become.

What inspired you to love history? Was it an individual, a book, a class, a field trip, or something else?

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Priya Chhaya

Priya Chhaya

Priya Chhaya is Associate Manager for Online Content, Preservation Resources at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. A public historian at heart, she sees history wherever she goes and believes that it is an important part of the American identity.


17 Responses

  1. Stephen Parry

    June 4, 2012

    A fascination with history has always been a part of my life.

    From stories my grandfather told of family members who fought in the Civil War, and his personal tales of growing up in “The Good Ole” Days” on a farm in Northwestern Ohio at the turn of the century. My 4th grade teacher, who brought Indiana history to life for me. Local historians at the county historical society, who let a curious kid hang around on Saturday afternoons. My mother who instilled the joy of reading and opened up the window to the joys of history.

    Stephen Parry
    documentary film producer

  2. Friends of Camp McDonald Park

    June 4, 2012

    The History of Camp McDonald inspires us as we pursue our vision for the Future Site of Camp McDonald Park.

  3. Emmy VandenLangenberg

    June 4, 2012

    My parents ate, breathed, and lived history. I grew up in a house filled with antiques. We were very involved with local Historical Societies and our local Maritime Museum. As if almost destined, my Father fabricated exhibits for a number of museums in WI and MI. My Mother was an educator for the Maritime Museum. This all occurred throughout my formative years!! And has played a major role in my childrens’ lives as we frequent museums and historical areas!!!

  4. Liz Almlie

    June 4, 2012

    Thank you Priya, for this prompt…

    A not unusual beginning for our profession, I grew up with cheap family vacations to nature parks and historic sites. Having a moderate imagination, pretending I was there at the time was my favorite part. Books set in historic periods were a staple. I went into college without a major and kept signing up for history classes because they seemed the most interesting. I was ecstatic when I learned there were other ways of being a historian than being a teacher (…teaching is exhausting).

    I love being a historian because every research project I start, I’m blown away by the connectivity and complexity of the human experience. I love being a public historian because so many different projects come across my desk. And I love being in historic preservation because places have the strength to give even the briefest of experiences the power to provide connection and insight to complex and diverse histories. The chance to share in other people’s lives across all of time.

  5. Denise

    June 5, 2012

    For me, it was reading fictional historical romance books as a teenager! :) Silly, right? But not really that silly. It challenged me to discover how close the reality was from the fiction that captivated me.

    My “sixth sense” was also opened as I began to see historical figures for the people that they were, other than the black & white stiff photos portrayed in school books.

    This love of history and of people lead me to University at the age of forty. I am halfway through my B.A. of Classic and Near Eastern Archaeology and look forward to finishing within the next few years.

  6. Joseph McGill

    June 5, 2012

    1984, Amsterdam, visiting the home where Anne Frank hid during WWII made history relevant to me. It taught me the importance of place.

  7. Cheryle Gardiner

    June 6, 2012

    I was inspired to love history by family lore and my mother’s involvement in politics. My high school American history teacher (50 years ago!) was an indifferent teacher, who usually spent class time regaling us with tales of his days as an Army officer in WWII.

    It was the personal touch – this really happened to people from whom you descend – that opened my eyes.

    Thank you for this post!

  8. tim arnold

    June 20, 2012

    My father was a history buff-especially the Civil War. We went on vacations that always included a battlefield or other site. I didn’t really get the bug until I had a great history teacher in college that made it come alive for me.

  9. J. D. Arinson

    June 20, 2012

    Growing up Southern means that you just naturally know History, usually through oral tradition. Shame on that teacher who just told his war stories! History is so interesting because it is REAL LIFE DRAMA. It should be the most interesting class for a studnt – if properly taught. It is about Stories of things that really happened and people who really existed. Whose interest doesn’t perk up when told the book or movei is “based on a true story?”

  10. Maryanne Gonsalves

    June 20, 2012

    I think it was the elective History course that I took in my senior year of high school (now 50 years ago). I remember the most interesting section was about the decade leading up to the Civil War and how events that occurred in each year led up to the ultimate battle. The teacher made the events come alive in a way I had not seen before, even though family trips had taken me to many historical sites.

  11. liz kelley

    June 20, 2012

    I wouldn’t be surprised if I did have a history gene, as my father, brothers and several cousins all love history! For me, growing up in Massachusetts, I lived at both ends of the Freedom Trail. I could walk and play in the actual footsteps of literary and historic figures, and that fascinated me. Even today, when I visit historic sites, I’m mesmerized. Fortunately, I work in a historic building and continue to be amazed by its past and feel very connected to the people who lived here, their many famous guests, the talented craftsmen who built it and the many dedicated staff members who have worked here from 100+ years ago to present day. I appreciate every day I spend on the estate.

  12. Tom Fritz

    June 20, 2012

    My Dad read history books when I was young. He lacked a high school diploma but was self taught in many things. In high school I had a terrific history teacher who made history seem relevant (which it is). In college, it was art history that renewed my interest but alas, I chose a different field of study for my major and minors. It wasn’t until I was married that we found ourselves going to every National Park I could find, going to look at old buildings with historic characteristics that I realized how hooked on history I am. A wonderful madness that in my retirement I now freely pursue.

  13. Leslie Welsh

    June 20, 2012

    I’ve always loved history. There are so many great historical fiction books for young adults, and I gobbled them all up.

    Probably the biggest factor though? I grew up in Colonial Williamsburg? I imagined that I was American Girl Felicity. I volunteered at Colonial Williamsburg through middle school and high school and worked there the summer after college. Most high school girls didn’t spend their Saturdays in Colonial outfits doing Colonial laundry, but I loved it. I miss it.

    I ended up majoring in history at the University of Virginia (talk about history!). Now, I’m lucky enough to live in Washington, DC where history is alive every day. So fun to learn about where others’ love for history came from.

  14. Elise H. McDermott

    June 21, 2012

    My love of history started as a young child sitting on my grandfather’s lap. He would tell me great stories of how he would run outside to see a automobile drive by or watch the sky for airplanes. He lived in a most fascinating time to me.

    When I was 13, my parents divorced. I felt disconnected so I started to trace my family tree. When I started my genealogy, I went from cemeteries, to town halls, to the National Archives, as well as the Family History centers in my area. I wrote to pertinent historical societies all over the US and UK. This was long before the invent of the internet.

    I went back to school at 37 and got my degree in History. My children, now grown, joke with me about how many picnics we had in cemeteries. I hope that I instilled we are who we have come from. How do we understand the present unless first, we understand the past.

  15. Chris Gradel

    June 23, 2012

    I always loved history. I guess it’s the stories are what captures me. My Dad was a newspaper librarian a lover of history and a stamp collector. I remember when he would get my brothers and sisters involved in his stamp collecting and explaining the history and the art on the stamps. So I also became an art lover at an early age looking at these miniature masterpieces. My Dad had a small library and history books and historical fiction were a large part of his library. Yes we did take day trips to historic sites in the Philadelphia and Delaware Valley Area. But I think most of all he was a great storyteller and he made historical events real to us. It’s amazing what a good teacher or a librarian can do to instill the love of history in a child. I was also fortunate to have a Dad who shared this love of history with us.

  16. Elaine Hatfield

    June 24, 2012

    For me it was genealogy. I hated history in high school, especially since the class was taught by a boring teacher and the class was after lunch when it was easy to nod off. However, having been told as a child that we were related to the “feuding” Hatfields, that led me on a quest to discover the history of my family. Along the way I came to appreciate history. I can’t get enough of it! Now after almost 30 years later I still am discovering how my family has played an important part in the history of America and Europe. Every day I learn more fascinating stories about my ancestors. And my Hatfield family? Well, we actually descend from the PENNSYLVANIA Hatfields and Captain Andrew Supplee Hatfield who fought in Dunsmore’s War, a precursor to the American Revolution.

  17. Linda Cody

    June 24, 2012

    My father came to this country as a child from Sicily in 1909 and settled in South Philadelphia where his father, a fisherman opened a fish market that my family runs to this day. The stories of that market and life in the Italian community of South Philly gave me a vivid picture of entering a new culture, leaving so much of another culture behind and what it means to be American. The stories and the gardens of the Italian community told the story, or the history, of a vibrant culture transformed.