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Barry McPherson

History Live and in Full Colour

By Dave Jenkinson

Volume 18 Number 6
1990 November

Meet high school history teacher Barry McPherson, whose passion for re-enacting historical events and re-creating authentic period costume has not only infected his family but also influenced the way he shares the past with young people.

How can Barry McPherson, vice-principal at Winnipeg's Hastings School, claim to have fought in the American Revolution, the War of 1812, and at the battles of Waterloo and Gettysburg? Is Barry a character from Back to the Future Part IV? No, this history teacher of some thirty-two years experience is a "re-enactor," a person who dons period costume and participates in restaging historical events. Over the last decade, many of the historical characters whose lives Barry has assumed have also made their way into school classrooms.

"I suppose I'm a combined salesman and history teacher," says Barry. "I like selling history in a different sort of way. I'm not too fussy about kids' memorizing a whole bunch of trivia. I'd rather they have some real impression of how things were and why they were. I want them to leave a history program feeling good about themselves, their teacher, and about the country they studied, particularly if it's Canada.

"I think somehow we've got history backwards. When children are younger, we try to depersonalize the teaching of history to a significant extent, when all the kids are interested in are personalities and human reactions and the 'story.' We turn them off so badly that they never come back to history, and we end up with a society that is, by and large, historically illiterate."

Barry attributes his own interest in history to "a couple of very fine history teachers, one in junior high and another in high school." Recently returned World War II veterans, this pair of teachers, Barry recalls, were "successfully led away from the course to their personal experiences of what they had just been through. Maybe what excited me more than anything else was that these teachers had something to tell, to share with us."

Sharing the past in a direct and personal way is what Barry attempts to do as he visits classrooms in the guise of historical characters. "Actual personages, such as Louis Riel or Governor McTavish of the Hudson's Bay Company, are more sophisticated than elementary school children are ready for," Barry asserts. "They like to have a visit from a generic fur trader, buffalo hunter, soldier, United Empire Loyalist or ex-potato famine Irish settler. I go into the classroom as what I call a 'facilitator of history' with a box of all of the paraphernalia that person would have had available to him. Kids are fascinated with the box. 'What's going to come out next?'

"It's really exciting to read the pulse of a bunch of children you've never seen before. I'm kind of a Socratic teacher and usually let the students pose the questions, then hope that they can collectively find the answers by themselves." The children, despite being told that the "person" before them is a modern-day individual in historic dress, soon forget and lose themselves in the character.

In a typical kindergarten class, Barry says, "The kids start off sitting on the carpet some five to six meters from me, but, by the time I'm finished, they're all literally sitting on my shoes and lap and grabbing at every item of clothing just because the texture and function are different. Shoes with buckles always fascinate children, and they really get into the little nuts and bolts, the fabric of military camp life or pioneer life, things like starting a fire with flint and steel. A recurring nightmare is that I will successfully start a fire in a school!

"I've got to admit that I've never been much of a social historian, but I'm finding that the questions children ask, especially the younger ones who are uninhibited, tend to be social in perspective. I like to fancy myself as somewhat of a military historian. Kids really aren't as interested in that field, but if they look at a 'soldier,' they'll ask, 'What did he eat? Why did he wear that? What were conditions like living in a tent? Why did he die as young as he did? How long would he have lived if he had retired? Why would he have come to Canada?"'

Barry acknowledges that, while his classroom incorporation of characters and their artifacts "isn't a utilitarian approach to history, it lays the groundwork for kids' pursuing history as an interest or avocation, whether they go to university or not." Somewhat embarrassed to talk about the extent of his "successes," Barry remarks simply, "I keep wondering how many people I've led away from productive professions."

Says Barry, "I've always admired the ability of historians to use language and their ability to draw conclusions from so much data, and I've always admired historical novelists who know so much history and make it so palatable. Somewhere in the middle is us, people like myself. We like doing the research but don't particularly care about the broad brush approach to history. We like to focus on something very minute and learn all there is to know about it.

"I like to take on one challenge a year--take a period in time, a person in time--and find out all there is to know. I started out being fascinated by the minutiae of military uniforms. It's one thing to paint a picture, but another thing to find out how closely spaced the thread is when you're sewing, what each individual button looks like, how you wear the uniform, how you moved in it, and how you used the firearms that went along with it."

Re-enacting is a family affair, but Judy McPherson was originally not a great supporter of what husband Barry calls "the hobby." "When I first saw Barry join," explains Judy, "I saw 'boys playing soldier.' I didn't see much role for women until I went along and met the women. What I found for me was researching women's roles and women's clothing. Because of my interest in costuming, through the back door I've learned more about history." In this two sewing machine family, Barry credits Judy with increasing his knowledge of costuming, textiles and sewing.

Though Judy's job as a legal secretary generally restricts her to a couple of school visits each year, Barry recognizes the value of Judy's presence when he is in front of a class. "It's grossly unfair, totally incorrect and probably just bad teaching to present only a male perspective. It's much better when the two of us go to any kind of show." Judy sees her role as providing a balance by letting students know "what the women were doing while the men were off fighting the wars."

The period garments worn by the McPhersons are not something that can be purchased at a costumer's. Instead, each piece is handmade with painstaking attention to both detail and historical accuracy. For example, machine stitching is used only when clothing seams won't be seen. "If anything is visible, we'll sew it by hand," declares Judy. Nor is producing a costume an instant process. Barry calculates each to be a two-year process: "One year to do the research, and one year to bring it to fruition."

While a single individual could reproduce an entire period costume, Judy explains that "everybody who does historical re-enactments develops his or her own specialty, and so each of us doesn't do all things." Instead, re-enactors utilize a wide, informal network of "specialists," with Barry's forte being transforming floppy felt pieces into military shakos [more or less cylindrical hats with a peak and upright plume or tuft]. Judy describes the size of their clothing collection simply as "more than our closets will hold. As much as the basement will hold." While the size of Judy's modern wardrobe equals her period dress, she maintains, "Barry has many more costumes than modern clothes."

Pieces of period dress even make their way into Barry's everyday school wear. Finding American Civil War vests to be superior to wintertime sweaters, Barry often wears one to school, and "the kids have got used to a vest with pewter buttons and a watch chain and pocket watch." Appreciating Barry's "style," many students have asked how they might obtain a similar vest. For Barry, such questions are just another opportunity for a history lesson, this one about the differences between today's "instant gratification" society and an earlier time when clothing wasn't available off the rack but had to be tailor made.

Barry, the school administrator, observes, "I think I have to retire from education so I can go ahead and do some more 'teaching."' Perceiving the role model portion of his administrative post to limit somewhat his freedom to make greater use of "characters" in his two sections of grade 9 social studies, Barry says, "I don't feel I have the elbow room to go around in my grade 9 program as much as I would intuitively like to, but I'm totally delighted when somebody invites me to go to their classrooms."

Looking a few years ahead, Barry suggests, "I can see myself moving into a small community in Ontario and substitute teaching (just to keep myself 'amused' and to keep from starving to death) and doing a lot more 'dog and pony cart shows,' where I can do my thing in my way without any restrictions at all." And they'll be live and in full colour!

Dave Jenkinson is a staff member in the Faculty of Education at the University of Manitoba and a director of the Canadian Children's Book Centre.

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