Friday, August 29, 2008

HUZZAH to Those Who Make Colonial Williamsburg Live

     Wishing for more time to experience Colonial Williamsburg, we needed to proceed on to the next leg of our journey.  Initially, when we planned our Virginia vacation, we made a long wish list of places to see.  A few places were scratched off, others were prioritized, and difficult choices were made.  We decided on less time in Williamsburg, so that we could spend a few days elsewhere to round out our American Revolutionary experience:  Mount Vernon, Washington DC, Montpelier and Monticello. 

     Like Lafayette who did a whirlwind grand tour of America in 1824, we did a grand tour of Virginia in 2004.  I called it our ABC trip.  It was our very first history vacation with our then 8yos and 11yod.  That time we toured Colonial Williamsburg while Hurricane Alex bumped into the Virginia coastline, drenching us throughout our Revolutionary experience before he whirled out to sea.  I watched Patrick Henry thunder away while standing under an umbrella behind the Palace Gardens. Breathtaking! (Two days later, after another storm during the night and a cold front came through, we watched his entire presentation.  Brrrr on the outside but definitely we were fired up in spirit!)   To stay dry at the peak of the rain someone suggested we meet with Thomas Jefferson who would talk to the children at Kimball Theater. What a treat! We visited every trade, played the drums, played the colonial games, marched with the drum and fife corps, went through boot camp with the militia and learned how to hold a gun and march in a wheel formation... interacting in every conceivable way.  (That was before Revolutionary City).  Then on a beautiful day with a brilliant blue sky we went to the interactive portions of Jamestown and Yorktown.  My son had a blast attending every single musket, rifle and cannon demonstration, while poor dd held her ears, cringing every time.  DS was firing imaginary guns and cannons for weeks!  We drove to our campground in Fredericksburg in the dark night during the downpour and mist of Hurricane Bonnie.  As we drove through the dark, narrow, winding road through the woods, through the mist hazily lit by our headlights, I could see Civil War soldiers stalking by with their guns, carefully looking... We toured Mount Vernon at the end of Hurricane Bonnie.  By noon the skies cleared.  My children got to do lots of interactive stuff at Mount Vernon, including running through the round barn that George Washington designed like the horses did to tread grain.  Then they got to see the horses do that.  (A mom has got to love programs that involve exercise for her children!  Afterwards they sleep great! lol)  That evening we took a boat tour from Alexandria up the Potomac into Georgetown.  We got to see all of the monuments and Arlington House from the boat under a sunset sky.  Beautiful!  We drove by Civil War battlefields and I pointed them out to the children and told them to imagine the fighting. (Harder to do in daylight than in misty rain at night.) Gun and cannon sounds proceeded from ds.  We drove by Montpelier and waved.  Then we toured Monticello during the biggest and coldest gulleywasher of them all, Hurricane Clyde, I mean Charlie. (I think that one was misnamed!)   Nevertheless we got to do a special children's tour of the mansion and walked through the gardens with our 3rd or 4th newly purchased souvenir umbrellas and raincloaks (Who knew it would rain again?)  Boy did we have memories...historical and tropical!

     Because we recently studied the American Revolution, we planned to return to Virginia for vacation this summer.  Since we experienced these wonderful locations at the grammar level last time, I challenged the chlidren to experience Virginia on a dialectic level this time, especially since we are learning in school at the dialectic level.  (Grammar, dialectic and rhetoric levels are phases of Classical Education.  Grammar is hands on.  Dialectic makes connections, as in my son asking the Marquis if the sour relations between the British and French during the Armerican Revolution and French and Indian War were a result of the Hundred Years' War. Rhetoric basically interprets and applies original source documents.)  As my children studied last spring, I kept encouraging them that they were learning the very things they would experience in August.  I told them to learn well so that they could engage with the re-enactors.   Because of the wonderful work of the actor/interpretors, our depth of understanding of the American Revolution was enhanced, allowing us to view the 21st century with a more focused lens.

     I cannot say enough what an incredible job the actor/interpreters did.  As we continued our grand tour of Virginia, other tour guides at other locations were good, but not nearly as knowledgeable as the historical interpretors of Colonial Williamsburg.  More than once my children stumped them with a question or knew more than the tour guide expected.  But never was that the case at Colonial Williamsburg. 

     While at CW we quickly noticed that many of the actors play multiple roles, assuming a new persona each day.  For background, last spring we read the Jean Fritz's biographies, Why Not Lafayette? and Traitor: The Case of Benedict Arnold.  I had always wondered WHY Lafayette was incredibly impelled to help us with our revolution and what caused him and George Washington to become so close.  On the other hand, I've always wondered WHY Benedict Arnold became a turncoat, as he is called in Williamsburg.  I not only got lots of answers from the biographies, but as I read the books I quickly noticed that these two men were foils to each other.  Each fought with passion and conviction and an inner drive to succeed.  Arguably, we discussed the amount of pride that each possessed.  It was of course out front with Arnold, but subtle with Lafayette. As we discussed the pride these men had, we also compared the drive behind and the goals for which they used it.  In the beginning, Benedict Arnold was quite the hero, most notably at the Battle of Saratoga, even though he was disobeying orders from a prideful commander. Yet he never gained the honor he sought.  The Marquis, on the other hand, was compelled by the idea of liberty for the comman man.  He had been working to improve the quality of life of his own serfs, stuck in the Medieval system of serfs owing allegiance to a vassal who in turn beckons to the monarch.  The lines of rich and poor in France during this time were becoming frightenly stark. Lafayette was pleased to use his title and money to help the common man to effect changes in society, in any way he could think of.  When Lafayette heard of the Declaration of Independence and General George Washington, he suddenly realized that his dreams of liberty in France were reality in America.  Excited that the idea of liberty was happening across the ocean, he had to become a part of it. In fact, his motto was...Why Not? At the age of 19 he arrived in America and convinced the Continental Congress to allow him to serve as aide-de-camp to General Washington; he'd pay his own way.  Lafayette, despite his youth, was a brilliant military leader, quickly gaining Washington's trust where others failed. Nevertheless he was often called "the boy" by those who couldn't look past his youth to see his brilliant military and leadership skills. Ever the mediator and encourager, he was known as the soldier's friend.  He stuck by his men, provided clothing for them from his own funds and inspired them when they were ready to give up. He always deferred to General Washington, whom he thought of as a father.  In turn, Washington thought of Lafayette as a son.  Lafayette's cleverness, quick wits and tenacity hounded General Cornwallis through Virginia for weeks. "Cornwallis gloated, 'The boy cannot escape me.'" (Why Not Lafayette, p28)   By September 1781, Lafayette and his men cornered Cornwallis in Yorktown.  The French fleet blocked any British hopes of escape by sea. General Washington marched south with his men to begin the siege on Yorktown.  On October 19, 1781, Cornwallis surrendered.  The American Revolution was over.  America was free!  In the end, both Lafayette and Arnold achieved enduring fame...the one for love and admiration for helping us to win the American Revolution, the other with detest for turning his back on America.  Coincidentally, when we met Benedict Arnold in Colonial Williamsburg, we were surprised to find that he was played by the same man who does Lafayette! 

     Over lunch and dinner that just brought up this entire discussion of comparing Lafayette and Arnold all over again.  But now we were also comparing what it would be like to act these bipolar personalities.  Effectively we were cheering Lafayette and booing Arnold. To me, that was the most prodigious contrast of character I saw in 3 days of Revolutionary City.  (Incidentally we figured out this actor/interpreter did three additional parts while we were there.  The kids had a lot of fun figuring out how many parts and which ones all the actor/interpretors did.)

     When we met with the Marquis the first day, he turned to leave and one of the ladies asked quickly if he was a historian.  He turned to her, smiled, bowed (Not at all like my son was taught to bow.  Lafayette bows like we are more used to, straight across from the hip.) and quickly and decisively announced he was the Marquis de Lafayette!  Wow, you know what?  That is exactly what all of these actor/interpretors would say about whatever part they happen to be playing at that moment.  They are so believable, so convincing that they are beyond doubt.  I've heard in various podcasts that these actor/interpretors do so much research for their part, that they often help the script writer and historian to write it.  As one goes through the town, whether it is a trade, a store, someone walking through town, or an actor/interpreter, they know their history and they become that character, for a moment in time to bring the pages of history books to life.  Huzzah!  

     If there is only one place a person would ever be able to go in their lifetime to learn history, before going to a mansion, a museum or anywhere else, I would heartily recommend Colonial Williamsburg. This is the highest quality history lesson I have ever experienced.  In fact, on many of the podcast interviews, the interviewer often mentions tongue-in-cheek that he probably shouldn't use the word, "educational," about what the actor/interpretors do, because it is so much fun. The Colonial Williamsburg staff often get comments like, "The history book was boring."  "Why couldn't I have learned like this in school?" After all, isn't that one of the goals of homeschoolers, to revolutionize the way a student is taught? 

     Additonally, Colonial Williamsburg is a great vacation value. Without a doubt, any visitor would get their money's worth.  They couldn't possibly get bored. Choices abound, there is never enough time to do it all, and there is something for every age level and interest.  And yes, CW is expensive.  But that is to keep Colonial Williamsburg alive.  My dh talked to one of the directors and the economy has hit them hard too. Like many of us, they have had budget cuts and such.  But for those who are themselves on a budget, Colonial Williamsburg offers homeschool week twice a year, September and April, for $5 a person a day, $11 for 5 days.   I have a friend who will be attending the next one in a few weeks. ...sigh...  She lives a few hours away. Hmmm... I might drive over there and stowaway in her baggage!  Another grand tour is always a good idea!  Huzzah! 


  1. I always wanted to go to Williamsburg. Someday I will. I love Gettysburg. If you have not been there it is a treat!

  2. You are getting me so excited!