"Speak Up, Woman!"

By Anne Howard — 2nd New Jersey, Helm's Company

For the camp follower who has the time and the inclination to be center stage at times, becoming a lecturer is fun and rewarding. You have to have time available during the day to speak at schools, and you have to like getting up in front of a group of people who are all looking at you, waiting to be entertained or educated. Luckily, sometimes you can do both.

I began quite by accident, like being discovered by a talent scout. A friend who was in charge of speakers for the Divorced and Separated Group at her church got word, the morning of the meeting, that the invited speaker couldn't come. She asked for my suggestions, and I jokingly said that maybe I could come in my 18th Century clothes and do a strip. She said, "Oh, would you?" with such gratitude in her brown eyes that I said, "OK, let's do it." I spent two and a half hours that night, in a church basement, talking about 18th Century women, marriage, home life, children, clothing, re-enacting as a hobby. And I didn't even have to strip.

My next appearance was at my son's middle school Home Ec class, where I brought boy's breeches and shirts along with my petticoats and stays. From there, I progressed to the Humanities Festival at the local high school, where I talked about re-enacting and how much I had learned that I never was taught in high school (goes over big with the kids).

I have talked to school groups as young as third grade. With younger groups, you have to assume that the Social Studies curriculum begins with community concepts and that they have probably heard about George Washington but that they don't yet have a good perspective on time (18th Century might as well be the Roman Empire).

A sample introduction for 3-5 grades usually goes like:

The important thing is to elicit from the kids what they already know and to keep the focus simple — what kids did all day in 1778 — what parts of their town were here in the 1770s, etc.

Because of the recent publications of the American Girl series — the dolls, books, and crafts — young grls now can identify with Felicity, Addy, and Kirsten and will probably know a lot more than you would expect. And kids have also seen shows on cable TV. But they still get Civil War and Rev War mixed up, and this aspect needs simple reinforcing.

They are fascinated by our clothing. I wear a simple skirt and white blouse and put on my 18th Century clothing over my regular clothes. The pockets are the biggest attraction. I also take along my basket and bring out all the junk — the hank of tow, the block of China tea, the horn spoon — lots of show-and-tell stuff.

At the high school level, there is less enthusiasm and a lot more lethargy, as you would expect with a captive audience of teenagers. There are very few kids who will volunteer if you ask a question. But make eye contact with the teacher frequently. Consider the teacher an ally and not someone who has been teaching them all the wrong things. And watch for telltale signs (yawns, sliding down lower and the seats) and try to shift gears, maybe into how a musket works and how a teenager can join the hobby. The interest is there; it is just not cool to let it show.

Consider adult groups more like discussion seminars. Adults have read more widely, traveled, camped out — but you bring to them a unique experience. I recently spoke to a Friends of the Library group, bringing two of my favorite books (Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's Midwife's Tale and Good Wives) which we discussed after I got dressed.

Pick what you're good at or what you like best about camp life and make that the emphasis of your lecture. Realize that as little as you may know, it's more than most teachers and students know.

To get started, use your existing contacts — your children's teachers, kids of friends and neighbors, members of church groups, etc. Schools are always looking for enrichment programs and some even have honorarium budgets. You can establish a lecture fee once you get some time under your belt.

You can even speak about a subject that is not your specialty. On one of my high school visits, I did a music class by playing some tapes and leading the class in singing, "God Save the King."

Don't expect to get rich. But don't refuse an honorarium if they offer one. Realize that you are creating good will in your community and keeping your interpretation green and growing.

And during those long stretches in January and February when we are all mentally in winter camp, you can almost smell the wood smoke and gunpowder.

Copyright © 1995 Anne Howard. All rights reserved.