LSS: Hope through history

Jul 1st, 2012 by Jan in Uncategorized

Sometimes things just make you smile.

The story I’m about to tell you is one of them. It’s a story about a 13-year-old boy named Bradley Curtis.

He is the youngest in his family in Starkville, Miss. He’ll be in 8th grade next year. He plays football. He has loads of friends, the manners of generations past, an awe-shucks smile that will melt your heart and is more humble than you’d think possible.

He also happens to be the youngest son of my college roommate and the best friend a girl could ever have.

So, I can’t be completely objective.

Even still, I believe Bradley’s story could give a lot of people hope about the next generation.

In June, Bradley went with a group of students from Mississippi to Washington, D.C., to compete in the National History Day competition. Bradley had been working on his individual research project for months. All told, about 500,000 students competed in the competition on local and state levels across the country (and in American schools outside the country). After those competitions, 2,800 students competed in the national competition.

Only about 60 students, in nine categories and two divisions, won national awards. Bradley was one of them. He was the only student from Mississippi who placed nationally. In fact, he was the only one from most of the South to get an award. This year Louisiana, Arkansas, Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina didn’t have any national award winners either.

“I started really researching in October,” he told me. “I didn’t stop until I had to turn my paper in — in May.”

I asked how many hours would he estimate he had worked. His answer was very Bradley-like.

“ Hours?” he asked. “Shoot, I have no idea. Just about every day, I would do something on it. And then, on a lot of days, I would go spend a good portion of my day at the library.”

He’s not exaggerating. The eight-page research paper he wrote is titled, “William Wilberforce: Reform of the Slave Trade.” It documents Wilberforce’s struggle to abolish slavery in the West Indies during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Bradley struggled to come up with a topic to research to fit the competition’s theme of Revolution, Reaction, Reform in History until he remembered a movie he had seen a couple of years earlier and thought the topic might work. “Amazing Grace,” tells the story of Wilberforce’s efforts to abolish slavery and his relationship with his pastor John Newton (who wrote Amazing Grace, the song).

Bradley did much of his primary research at the local university library in Starkville, but he didn’t stop there. He researched at Auburn Avenue Research Library in Atlanta — one of two research libraries in the country focusing on African American history. He also received materials from Wilberforce University in Ohio.

“I went to a bunch of places to do research. Everywhere I went the people were so willing to help me. I think that helped a lot,” he said incredulously.

Note to Bradley: Anytime a 13-year-old boy (or girl, for that matter) winds up in a library genuinely trying to do deep research on 16th and 17th centuries, librarians are going to help. In fact, they’ll probably be giddy about it.

“I felt like I got to know Wilberforce. I really did,” Bradley said. “For 26 years, he worked for slave trade to be abolished. He kept having to go through obstacle after obstacle. Eventually, he accomplished his goal. He was so driven.”

And what did he learn from the experience?

“A lot of what I learned was how to start early on the research, how to do a bibliography, how to cite sources, stuff like that,” said the 13-year-old boy as he was waiting for a friend’s family to pick him up for an afternoon swim.

With that, the car pulled in the driveway and honked. Bradley apologized that he couldn’t talk anymore, said goodbye and ran out the door.

I smiled, believing that things were going to be just fine.

Jan Risher’s column appears Sundays. Email her at jan@janrisher.com.

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