Making history at St. Louis School

For 10 years students at St. Louis School in Louisville have “made” history by entering the National History Day competition. Though this academic extracurricular program, students prepare a research paper, exhibit, website, documentary or performance—based on a specific historical topic and theme–and present it to a panel of professional educators and historians.

“It’s such a great experience,” said Joan Farus, middle school social studies, literature and language arts teacher at the school for 11 years. “I have seen kids’ lives change with these projects. What a blessing!”

Topics over the years have ranged from the evolution of jazz and the impact of “I Love Lucy,” to the Magna Carta and cultural effects of the Black Plague.

This year Farus helped prepare a group of 11 seventh- and eighth-graders from St. Louis for the Greater Metro Denver Regional Competition March 8 at Colorado University in Denver. While she is on-hand to guide them when needed, she said, the students do the work on their own.

“It’s really what the kids want to do,” she said of the individual and team projects. “They really help each other (and) receive a lot of support from each other.”

The theme for 2014 was “Rights and Responsibilities.” After choosing a historical topic to focus on, students conducted extensive research through libraries, archives, museums, oral history interviews and historic sites. They then analyzed and interpreted the sources and drew conclusions about the topic’s significance in history.

“They learn so much about the topic,” she said. “And really use their analytical abilities.”

Of St. Louis’ seven entries at regionals, among more than 50 overall, four advanced to the final round. In finals, eighth-grader Nikki Gander finished first with her exhibit: “Do with less so they’ll have enough: Rationing on the U.S Home Front During World War II.”

“Nikki is very talented,” Farus said. “She is also pretty artistic as well.”

According to the judges’ comments on her panel presentation, they were impressed with Gander’s wide variety of sources, including microfiche at the University of Colorado library, photographs and documents to explain the progress and the need for rationing.

“Through these methods,” judge wrote, “she applied her thesis regarding the rights and responsibilities in rationing. She is a very thorough and high-level-thinking young woman.”

The first-place finish qualified her for the state competition, at the same location, May 3. There some 15,000 Colorado students participated in National History Day Colorado, an affiliate of National History Day. Gander finished in the top eight in the state. She also qualified for the state competition last year for a presentation on former Colorado Gov. Ralph Carr and his role with Japanese American internment camps.

Farus appreciates the opportunities the program brings to the students at St. Louis.

“For me what’s most rewarding as a teacher,” she said, “is to see kids that maybe don’t ‘fit in the mold,’ get to shine.”

COMING UP: Did Christians ban the Games? Tales, myths and other fun facts about the ancient Olympics

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The 2020 Summer Olympics began less than a week ago, and as is usually the case, there’s been enough stunning athleticism, shocking upsets and yes, even a little bit of drama on display to keep the water cooler chatter abuzz until at least the 2022 games.

At their best, the Olympic games bridge cultural divides and unite countries around the world as the greatest living athletes around the globe compete for the coveted gold medal in their respective events. There’s a spirit of global camaraderie that welcomely comes about during every Olympiad; whether watching the Games at home with the family or going to a local bar to cheer on your favorite country, the Olympics bring people together in a way that most other sporting events do not.

Another astounding thing about the Olympics is how they’ve endured over the millennia. Indeed, they provide a special glimpse into the history of the world and those common qualities of humanity that will never die; namely, the need for both unitive, universal community and friendly but fierce competition.

The first recorded Olympic games took place in 776 B.C., though some historians speculate that they could have began as early as the 10th century B.C. The games were held every four years in Olympia to honor the greek god Zeus as one of four Panhellenic festivals, this one coinciding with the second full moon following the summer solstice, usually at the end of July or early August. The Olympics became so significant that the term Olympiad was used to mark a year the games took place, and became a common unit of historical time measurement.

Now, the ancient world wasn’t exactly known for its amicability or even peacefulness, as indicated by the countless wars and power usurpations that took place throughout its history. However, Olympic festivals were marked by a truce among the Greeks called ekecheiria, which roughly means “holding of hands.” This ensured safe travels for athletes and spectators as they made their way to the festival and was a common basis for peace among the Greeks. That the Olympic games could get even the constantly feuding Greeks to lay down their arms and come together in a spirit of solidarity speaks to their significance in ancient history.

Early Olympic events included the footrace, wrestling, the long jump, the javelin throw, the discus throw and boxing. Of course, it’s nigh impossible to read about the ancient Olympics and not come across epic tales of chariot racing, an event which was briefly banned early on but was reinstated by the first century B.C. and drew the interest of several key Roman figures (more on that later).

By the fifth century B.C., athletes from all over the Greek-speaking world came to Olympia for the games. The footrace, also called the Stade or Stadion, was considered the most prestigious event, and is where the english word “stadium” is derived from. Stade was a unit of measurement in ancient Greece which modern historians say is the rough equivalent to 600 feet or 200 yards, though the actual length has been a subject of debate for many years. Either way, it represents the length which runners in the Stadion ran to prove themselves as the fastest sprinters in the ancient world.

Interestingly, very little record about the Olympics games during the time of Christ exists. History tells us that the Roman emperor Tiberius, who was emperor during Christ’s life, won the chariot races during the 194th Olympiad in 4 B.C. In 17 A.D., the popular Roman general Germanicus, who was Tiberius’ adopted son and the future father of the third Roman Emperor Caligula, won the chariot races in 17 A.D., presumably around the time Christ was a teenager.

About those chariot races: they were known to attract elite political figures, some of whom won based on true skill, and others who only wanted the appearance of winning to further exert their power and status. During the 211th Olympiad, Emperor Nero, known for his fierce persecution of Christians and rather narcissistic personality, forcibly moved the Olympic games set to take place in 65 A.D. to 67 A.D. so he could compete while on a tour of Greece. He participated in the chariot races (with six more horses than the other competitors), and declared himself the greatest Olympic victor of all time, though historical eyewitness accounts tell a different story. Nero actually nearly died after a severe wreck, but Nero being Nero, he was still declared the winner.

Thankfully, Nero’s title as an Olympic victor and the Olympiad he “won,” which did not adhere to the established chronology of the games, were subsequently stricken from the official Olympic records after his death.

The Olympics grew over the course of 1,200 years until 393 A.D., when Emperor Theodosius I banned all Pagan festivals from the Roman emperor after Christianity became adopted as the state religion. Popular culture and history has long maintained this story of Christianity being to blame for the halt of the Olympic games. However, in recent years, some historians have disputed this account, saying that it was not for religious reasons but rather economic reasons that the games ended when they did. In fact, even after Theodosius’ death, there are still records of Olympic games taking place up until the fifth century. As the administration of Roman Empire evolved, the Olympics could no longer be sponsored by civil funds and instead became sponsored more and more by rich elites of the time. Simply put, the games became too expensive, and no one wanted to pay for them anymore.

The Olympics did not make a return for 1,500 years, until the Athens Olympics in 1896. Over the last 125 years since their reinstatement, the Games have become an integral piece of modern culture and a remnant of ancient history that was revived to great avail. As the Olympics in Tokyo continue over the next week and athletes compete for the gold, the words of St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians serve as a pertinent reminder of how the spirit of an Olympian imitates closely that of a Christian:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:24-27).

So let the Games continue! And may the race be run not for a perishable prize, but an imperishable one.

Featured photo: Met Museum, Terracotta Panathenaic prize amphora (jar), ca. 510 B.C. Attributed to the Leagros Group.