Girls in flowing dresses and guys with white-stockinged legs relax on blankets on the front lawn of Montpelier, the home of President James Madison and Dolley Madison.
The Marine Corps band plays, fireworks explode over darkened Blue Ridge peaks. Then a pyrotechnic finale signals the close of this high school class.
In the Living History course taught at McLean High School, students choose characters from the 18th century and delve into their lives for the next several weeks.
“It’s my favorite part of high school,” said Will Thompson, a senior who chose Alexander Hamilton as his subject. “I’ve learned more about the military...I enjoy teaching people about someone who is
underappreciated in American History.”
Housed within the performing arts department at McLean High School, Living History is a multi-ring circus of science and society. Students present their specialties at venues around Northern Virginia, dressed in character. They quickly set up demonstration stations, ready to engage in conversation and answer visitors’ questions.
“I was nervous in the beginning to talk to people,” said senior Reaa Chadha, who portrays astronomer Maria Mitchell. “I thought I’d be a background person, but I dove in because they interact with you. I love public speaking now.”
Living History began when idea met opportunity. McLean physics teacher Dean Howarth said he always believed teaching history along with science “was a cool idea.” So, in 1992, when the Corcoran Gallery called and asked Howarth and two other teachers to fill their French salon with 18th-century characters for its opening, his idea had a place to sprout.
The Corcoran event was the beginning of a club called Project Enlightenment. The following year, The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association invited the group to join the professional re-enactors at Mount Vernon on Memorial Day weekend, which they have continued to do the past 16 years. This year, the Living History class will perform at Mount Vernon, Gadsby’s Tavern and The Apothecary in Alexandria, Virginia.
Senior Rebecca Lawrence, who transferred to McLean from Turkey, said, “I went to Mount Vernon two years ago. I’m so excited about going back as an interpreter.”
The club requires a high level of commitment and academic effort, after school and on weekends, but it also “gives students time to do creative and interesting things, which are often overlooked,” said Howarth.
“I have more guidance on how to research. I have more time, and it’s dedicated to only this. It’s so nice,” said Chadha. “I’m considering going into history in college because of this.”
Authenticity and accuracy are key components of Living History. Students learn to speak with a lilt that was common in revolutionary America. A dance instructor teaches the students English country dances, such as the Dover Pier and Hole in the Wall.
The young women wear period dresses made of multiple layers of heavy fabrics, similar to what is used today for drapery fabric. On hot summer days, they wear straw hats, carry parasols and keep their fans fluttering to keep cool. The young men wear breeches, stockings, tailcoats and tri-cornered hats; some wear Scottish kilts.
Each year, alumni return on Memorial Day weekend to Mount Vernon, to see old friends and to meet the students following in their footsteps.
Guest “State of NoVa” blogger Donna Peterson has a child who’s in the Living History class.