Important history lessons for today

I will never forget my eighth-grade social studies teacher Mr. Danato at Franklin Middle School in Wheaton, Ilinois. Mr. Danato stood at 5 feet 8 inches and had salt and pepper hair that fell at the nape of his neck. At the start of each class period, we would scramble to copy down pre-written notes from a dimly lit smartboard. Then, Mr. Danato would make his way to the front of the room and begin telling stories, stories that captivated our attention. Not one set of eyes dared look at an iPhone when Mr. Danato told his stories; no one wanted to miss a single detail. 

If some people think history is made up of useless and old facts and dates, they clearly didn’t have a teacher like Mr. Danato. His stories brought history alive and showed all of my middle school classmates and me that stories from history have, in one way or the other, impacted our world today. Mr Danato helped me see how historical stories can be bridges to other times and places. When we hear or read them, we get invited to walk across these bridges, enter into the past and gain insights to who we are today. Mr Danato and the stories he told are the reason I have chosen to become a history teacher during my time at Hope College.

Best-selling author Nathaniel Philbrick, like Mr. Danato, knows the power stories hold. In the Heart of the Sea, our NEA Big Read Lakeshore 2020 chosen book, he brings the tragedy of the whaleship Essex to life. His novel follows the whaleship crew on their three-year voyage to harvest whale oil; however, their journey takes a turn for the worse when their whaleship is attacked and sunk by an 85-foot angry sperm whale. The crew endures 90 days of starvation and false hope at the hands of the great and unforgiving sea. 

Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea is a relevant and timely story for our Lakeshore community for many reasons. For one, the novel and its survival story is a page-turner. It’s well written, historically accurate, and one you won’t be able to put down. For another reason, this November marks the 200th anniversary of the sinking of the Essex. What better time and reason to read this story? COVID19 had never been heard of in 1820 but the Essex crew’s perseverance can teach us lessons in hope and in the strength of the human spirit. Another reason this book is relevant is that readers along the Lakeshore can personally relate to a water-based economy. While we don’t live near an ocean and Lake Michigan doesn’t have whales, much of our own economic activity, leisure pursuits, and sustainability issues are focused on water. Philbrick invites us to walk across the bridge that his story represents and learn from what happened in the past.

While you might not have had a Mr Danato in your life like I did, our NEA Big Read Lakeshore 2020 book choice is your chance to experience the power of stories from the past. I encourage you to read the book and discuss it with family, friends, and neighbors. Visit our website ( to find resources and event information and join us for our program in November. Let’s walk the bridge together!

Abigail Knoner is a sophomore at Hope College where she is majoring in Social Studies for Secondary Education. She is this year’s Communications Manager for the NEA Big Read Lakeshore.

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