by Marisol Castro
Portrait of George Washington Taking the Salute at Trenton by John Faed (1899)
When I was about seven years old my parents took my brother and me to a bastion of U.S. history: Mount Vernon, famous home of the nation’s first president, General George Washington. And his white horse. How did I know that he had a white horse? Because my beloved 1980s-era age-appropriate book of American presidents told me, that’s how. If you can’t trust a children’s book of crucial historic facts such as the color of apparently the only horse that the president owned in a time of horse-centered transportation, what can you trust? My mental image was set: the father of our country, the epitome of honor and truth, and his trusty white horse. The author additionally provided me with a name for the horse, but after 30+ years my brain has decided to let that piece of knowledge go the way of my icloud password.
So there I was, excited way beyond what a normal seven-year-old should be to see the stables of Mt. Vernon, when the heritage interpreter leading our tour, the very guide we depended on to give us the best, most accurate picture of 18th-century life in the Washington household, started telling the group an anecdote about the President’s horse. His BROWN horse.
I’d like to point out that at this age I was in that strange childhood state of shyness mixed with a blurry concept of social boundaries. I remember attempting to bribe my brother to order for me at a burger stand because I couldn’t handle walking up to the cashier and telling him my order, to which my brother kindly replied that I needed to stop being a wimp. If anyone had told me back then that I’d end up publicly speaking to large groups of strangers as my career, I’d probably have hit them with a book and run.
But, like most kids, if you trigger their passion in just the right (or wrong) way, a verbal avalanche of information and opinion can come unexpectedly roaring down on top of you. I don’t know what that poor guide had intended with their benign quip about Washington’s horse, but what they got was a passionately verbose little girl correcting their woeful misinformation. The tour ground to a halt while sources were identified and summarized, complete with paraphrased quotes from that unknown children’s author. I’m pretty sure I wound up this earnest tirade with a coup de grace: the maligned horse’s actual name as it actually was written in the actual book, thank you very much!
“Nelson, the “splendid charger,” as Washington referred to him.” Photo c.o. Flickr. com.
That poor, poor guide. I really hope they got a laugh out of it afterwards, or at least fantasized about leaving me under a historically accurate haystack. A couple decades later, during an interpretive training session in Seattle, our group was asked about our first strong heritage interpretative-oriented memory and this little scene came tripping forward through the decades. I wanted to go back in time and smack myself. I was one of those kids. The Know-It-Alls. The ones who smirk when they seem to catch an authority figure in an error, the ones that cop an attitude that’s encouraged by doting parents so everyone could appreciate how bright and knowledgeable their child was, while what everyone really wanted was a conveniently located historically accurate haystack to stuff the kid under. At least, that’s how I felt at first.
The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized that the whole scenario wasn’t about appearing smart and sassy, or showing up the adult with my “superior” knowledge. It was about holding on to a sense of the truth, which can be a tricky proposition for a seven-year-old. Kids depend so much on cues from trusted resources in order to make sense of an impossibly huge, confusing world. Children are inundated with new information which constantly yanks the rug out from under what had been accepted as gospel the day, or week, or month, or year before. Whatever your classmate told you in recess gets debunked by your parent; your sister’s words of wisdom come into conflict with your teacher’s lesson plan. For me, books were sacrosanct. Who would put actual misinformation into print? Who could I trust: the stranger before me, or my beautiful book full of facts, written in a way that would most effectively reach young audiences like me?
I recently brought up the trip to Mt. Vernon with my father the other day and he, a veteran educator, laughed with sympathy for both his vocally righteous daughter and the beleaguered interpreter. I realized that encounters like this have helped me remember the feeling of what it’s like to be young and excited about those pieces of knowledge hoarded and displayed like newly found treasure, and how difficult it can be to see those treasured pieces tarnished. I’d like to think it’s made me more sensitive to not only to my fellow Know-It-All kids, but also to the adults that may have their own version of George Washington’s white horse lurking behind their “Well, I read in an article…,” “That’s not what I learned in school,” or “Actually, heave you heard about…” And maybe I haven’t heard about it. Why don’t you tell me more?
(By the way, I looked up George Washington’s white horse. He did in fact have a notable one, a beautiful warhorse name…Blue Skin. And some historians claim the Blue Skin was more gray than white. He also had a brown horse named Nelson. I’m just going to go ahead and call this one a draw for seven-year-old me and the Mt. Vernon tour guide, ok?)