Becoming History

Claudette Sutton - July 2, 2009

Two sisters, 8 and 5, wove their way through the throngs of visitors to the New Mexico History Museum on its opening on Memorial Day weekend, getting their own bead on history. The big girl had her arms wrapped around her little sister’s chest from behind and led her from one display case to the next, reading bits from the wall texts and embellishing  with flair.

“Now we’re coming up to Billy the Kid, but I have to warn you,” Big Sister said, pausing as any good teacher would for dramatic effect. “He was an outlaw.” She gave that fact a moment to sink in. “And here’s the guy who shot Billy the Kid.”

“Why would he shoot a kid?” Little Sister asked. A ring of adult museum-goers around them broke into smiles.

Thousands of people visited the New Mexico History Museum that weekend, flushed with excitement about being the first to see the spanking-new building and exhibits. I was among them, but not really. I was lost in kid-watching.

The big girl was already leading her sister to the next room. “You’re taking me so fast I can’t learn anything!” Little Sister said.

“It’s all in the past,” Big Sister answered, popping consonants like a diction coach. “You don’t need to know.”

And just like that, they were off, while I grabbed a pen from my purse and scribbled their whole exchange in the margins of my museum brochure. I live for moments like these. I didn’t see much of the museum that day, but I live here; I’ll be back. Sometimes the best display of artifacts can’t compete with the moving, talking, breathing exhibit of children in real life.

Truth was, my young museum-going comrades invited some important questions: What do we need to know about the past, and when do we need to know it? Adults know the adage about learning from the past lest we repeat it (something apparently even the popular kids in high school don’t want to do). But for children, the past is a tricky sell. History is a progression of stories, and a good story always has the power to grab a child’s attention. Yet young children’s awareness naturally focuses close-in. Their sphere is the present, the recent past and the near-future, the here and the not-so-far. They, too, are living and making history; their own little footprints in the mud are helping shape the planet. They just might not know that yet.

An impact on the future is easier to grasp from my side of life’s thick black line marked “50.” I crossed it a year ago. If I were an Anasazi woman, I probably wouldn’t have lived this long. As a 21st century American woman, I feel I’ve just straddled life’s halfway hurdle. My grandmother died a year ago at 99. Who knows if I’ll be blessed with her health and luck, though in my mind’s eye I see as much life ahead of me, waiting to be shaped, as I see behind me.

For 20 years, I’ve been helping shape my son’s life— reading him stories, driving to soccer practice, taking forgotten lunches or musical instruments to school, having those Meaningful Talks about drugs, relationships, wise choices, kind living.

Now that little boy is home from his second year of college. His dad and I are still happily married, healthy, and reasonably steadily employed. Our tandem life hike has taken us over the steep peaks of parenting a teen, to the windy aerie of “empty nesting,” to a gentle midlife valley. It’s surprisingly uncharted territory.

One thing I suspect I’ll keep doing is watching and writing about children. I want to be there with my pen while their place in history is being formed. I’m grateful to for this venue for my observations and reflections. Look for my column here every other week, and please write me about events, people, politics and ideas, here in Santa Fe and the world Out There. I can’t wait to hear from you.

Contact Claudette Sutton at

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