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Learning in The Present from The Past

Laura Adams, Middle School World Languages Faculty

Sometimes we are asked, “If you could meet someone from the past, who would it be?” All of us probably have someone in mind. For example, Eleanor Roosevelt is at the top of my list, and if I had been at Dana Hall in April of 1959, I would have actually been able to hear her speak to the Dana Hall community!

As a teacher of beginning French and Spanish students, I start with a few essential questions: How did the language come to be? Where is it spoken today? And, above all, why is it spoken in these places? Both languages were brought to distant lands outside of France and Spain and learning about the history of those places, in the context of language study, is vital to the experience. 

Another person I’d chose to meet is Atahualpa, the last Inca ruler. I can think of many questions I’d ask him, especially about his dealings with Francisco Pizarro and the Spaniards who caused his and his civilization’s demise in 1533. Or Joan of Arc. What were the key ingredients of her unfathomable courage as a 17-year-old commanding French troops against the English in 1429? By being able to talk to people from the past, we would have a better chance of understanding history more completely and the various perspectives that create it.

Black and white portrait of Elizabeth Irvin, Class of 1911

Elizabeth Irwin, Class of 1911

My urge for conversation with people I never met extends to my relatives, one of them being my maternal grandmother. She grew up in Philadelphia and passed away when my mother was in high school. Although remembered as a loving mother, I knew little about her. Then, unbeknownst to me, in the fall of 2011 (just prior to my employment at Dana Hall), my mother donated a variety of photographs to the Dana Hall Archives from her mother’s photo collection, and I learned that my grandmother, Elizabeth Irwin, graduated from Dana Hall in 1911. 

This perfect “100 years later” burst of information was astonishing to me, and I was further surprised to discover Elizabeth’s Dana Hall diploma in the attic of my family home. Although crinkled and faded, the large parchment paper document was legible enough for me to read “June 14th, 1911” and the signature of the principal, Helen Temple Cooke.

I finally visited the Archives in the Helen Temple Cooke Library to see what they had received. The process to find a “Deed of Gift” and its contents is well plotted out. A computer file led to a box which led to a folder. Like magic, Dana Hall Archivist Dorothy DeSimone tracked down the donated photos as well as my grandmother’s yearbook picture, report cards and class history pages. I saw her playing field hockey in long black culottes, as her class treasurer and as a member of her junior year play. Through examining these assorted documents and images, I was able to briefly “meet” my grandmother and get a sense of the same Dana Hall spunk and camaraderie that exists today.

Junior Class Hockey Team, 1909

Junior Class Hockey Team, 1909


An archivist must be able to make connections between documents and photos and then interpret their interconnecting details. When you walk into the Dana Hall Archives, you see a treasure trove of preserved items — photos, trophies, uniforms, shoes, posters, banners and shelves of carefully stored and labeled documents. Thanks to our archivists past and present, I could explore a personal connection to the School and learn more about some of the traditions and characters in Dana Hall's history.

I encourage you to visit our school Archives if you haven’t already. It’s a special spot in the Helen Temple Cooke Library that reminds us to research and ask questions to better understand and keep history (and herstory) present and meaningful.