Why bother? Several years ago, a rude little girl surprised me with an unexpected but profoundly important question – Why do we do this? Why is it important? IS IT important?
Several years ago, when I was still new in this job, the third graders would come to the Glendoon House for their annual field trip. One morning, I had a class there and I’m telling them all about the Historical Society and how we’re the town museum and we preserve Needham’s history and all that. When I’m done, one little angel looks up at me and asks – “Why. Bother?”
Why bother? I’d never questioned it before, but this little girl, albeit rudely, had asked a profoundly important question – Why do we do this? Why is it important? Is it important?
Why bother? This is the question that basically defines my waking hours. We live in a town that has history. Our official incorporation by the legislature dates back more than 300 years, and English colonists were settled on this spot for almost 400. We’ve been here longer than the country we belong to, and our history surrounds us. A college dedicated to cutting edge innovation in engineering overlooks a house that was built in 1707. The Broadmeadow School butts up against ditches that were dug in the 1600s to drain those same Broad Meadows. And that’s just European history – Native American history here goes back to the end of the last Ice Age; we have an artifact in the collections that is some 9000 years old.
But people will still tell me that they are “not history buffs.” They find local history to be kinda boring. And my favorite – “nothing important ever happened here.” What is the point, they say, of memorizing places and dates – a list of free-floating events, untethered to any reality that they know.
But I love history, and I especially love local history. All those important names and dates are not discrete untethered events – they are the big culmination of innumerable small local events. Think of them as the powder keg at the end of a very long fuse. The fuse gets lit when some small discovery or conflict or partnership is initiated, and burns steadily until the spark reaches the keg. The big event is the explosion; but that doesn’t happen until someone lights and nurtures the fuse – the many small local events keeping the spark alive as it burns inevitably toward the keg. For example, the Revolutionary War. That’s the explosion. But the fuse burned for decades – unequal treatment, royal monopolies, seizures of property, secret communication networks, banning town meeting, dissolving Congress, the Tea Act, the Stamp Act, the Massachusetts Act – Boom! Local history links those big events together and gives them meaning. The explosions are spectacular, but they don’t happen until the sparks are lit in towns like Needham.
So, why bother? How did I answer that little girl? I told her what I tell everyone who thinks that local history is not important. No one believes that American history is not important. But you don’t have national history if you don’t have local history. Big national events happen because they spent years churning and coalescing as local events. They happen because someone in a place like Needham lit the fuse.
Nothing important ever happened here?
EVERYTHING important happened here!
Why bother, indeed?
Gloria Polizzotti Greis, Executive Director, Needham History Center & Museum