Friday, October 16, 2009

Return of the Undergraduate History Club

Hey, at least I haven’t made Miguel memorize the encyclopedia or translate the dictionary. I’ve just resurrected a tiny history club. Someday he’ll thank me for harassing, er, encouraging him to learn more.

I hope.

When Miguel and I received some stamps of civil rights pioneers I thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if Miguel, Verna, and I each researched one pioneer and reported back during dinner?”

Miguel rolled his eyes when I suggested it. Verna did the same. I pulled her aside and asked her to support me. OK, she’s got a lot on her plate these days, but she somehow saw a sliver of wisdom in my attempts to expand the family knowledge base.

Miguel eventually chose Medgar Evers; Verna picked Fannie Lou Hamer; and I settled on someone I’d never heard of, J.R. Clifford. The rules were simple: research your person and present information about him or her in your own words.

I took the idea for the Wefald-Friedman History Club from my undergraduate days at Columbia University in NYC. One time I was sitting in the quad with a group of friends, gazing out at the massive library and pondering ways to get laid without paying for it, when we decided to form the Undergraduate History Club in order to satisfy our thirst for knowledge and take our minds off our unsuccessful attempts to nail co-eds. The other three guys were members of the Columbia rowing team and I was a reporter for the school newspaper, the Columbia Daily Spectator.

Each week we submitted questions to another group member and then shared our findings over snacks and beers. I only remember one question anyone ever posed: what is the significance of Kashmir in the song of the same name by Led Zeppelin?

Probably the biggest accomplishment of the Undergraduate History Club, beyond minor edification, was when Rolling Stones tickets went on sale at the Brendan Byrne Arena in 1982. The four of us—Dave, Noah, Allen, and I—decided to send in 100 self-addressed stamped envelopes in order to score a pair of seats through the lottery.

On the day of the envelope addressing and licking party, only two of us—Dave and Allen—were available, so they worked in proxy for the whole group. I can’t vouch 27 years later for Noah’s whereabouts back then, but I am pretty sure I had a late afternoon history class.

Anyway, a few weeks later Dave got a voucher in the mail good for two tickets to the show. The club reconvened to decide which one of the remaining three would accompany him. Allen, a pre-med student with an inflated ego to match his bulging rower’s pectorals, said he deserved the other ticket because he and Dave had done all the work to mail off the envelopes.

Noah and I countered that that wasn’t the original agreement, invoking the spirit of the club, which was pretty close to the Three Musketeers’ credo of ‘All for One and One for All’. Allen was forced to back down. Plus he already had tickets to see the Stones in Philadelphia.

Dave put three strips of white paper behind his back, one colored with red marker. Allen, Noah, and I each pulled a strip and I was the lucky recipient of the red one and the right to be Dave’s date to the concert.

Allen skulked around for a bit more, but we ignored him as I bubbled with excitement about attending a major rock show—The Rolling Stones with Tina Turner as the opening act.

So why not resurrect the history club in my own household? Outside of our libidinal pursuits and a minor clash over the Rolling Stones, we’d had fun and learned a bit.

Neither Miguel nor Verna had completed their assignments on time, so the Wefald-Friedman History Club had to postpone its inaugural meeting to Sunday night, October 12. On that evening, Miguel shared some facts about Medgar Evers, which was topically relevant because there’d been a news item earlier that the Navy had named a ship for the slain civil rights leader. And Verna talked about Fannie Lou Hamer, who, like Verna, had an early October birthday.

I learned that J.R. Clifford was the first African-American attorney in West Virginia and a Civil War veteran, and helped to form a group that became the predecessor to the NAACP.

Then we wrote out questions for this week and gave them to each other. Miguel asked Verna to answer three ways in which energy can be transferred. I asked him to share three important things about Dr. Spock. And Verna asked me how her high school—Presentation—got its name and the religious significance of the order.

Miguel started his assignment last night, a day early, and shared with us that Dr. Spock wrote a best-selling baby book and introduced psychoanalysis into his treatment of children and families.

“Miguel, what’s psychoanalysis?” I asked. One rule of our club is you have to be able to define the information you uncover.

He looked at me. “I don’t know. It’s got something to do with treating psychos.”

“No, that’s not it,” I said. “Go find out,” which he did, though I am not sure he understands the finer points of Freud and therapy. Then, again, he is only 11. But look at the jump on knowledge he’ll have when he gets to college should he decide to form his own history club. Something tells me he’ll also be a lot more successful with females as well. But until then, he’s going to have to settle for the comfort of the encyclopedia and the dictionary.

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