Maura O’Connor introduced the 5th and 8th grade winners of Greenwich Preservation Trust’s essay competition for Greenwich Public Schools. The Greenwich Preservation Trust, founded in 2008, launched its first annual “Preserving Our Past By for Our Future” essay competition.
O’Connor said this was the first year the Trust sponsored an essay competition. “The results were fabulous,” she said. “James had a wonderful essay. In fact, I wish I had time to read James Chang’s entire essay to you because many of our board members had tears in their eyes,” she said.
“His focus was called ‘Fading Suns,’ and he personally went to Thomas Lyons house at 6am to touch the shingles and really tell from his heart what preservation is,” she said.
This is James Chang‘s winning Greenwich Preservation Trust essay. James is an 8th grader at Eastern Middle School.
The sun is too bright as it shines through the windshield. I squint into the piercingly blue sky; the weather has not yet fully broken from its cold snap.
Our car slowly pulls up to the slanted hill of Sherman Avenue. I jump out of the door and into the icy pre-dawn darkness. At six o’clock in the morning, my tired mind is solely focused on the destination ahead.
The Thomas Lyon House first appears on my right. As I turn the corner, the full structure comes into view. It is an old house, no doubt about it. The walls need a fresh coat of paint, the surrounding trees are beginning to embrace the house with long, wrinkled arms. Despite this, the efforts of the Preservation Trust are obvious. The house looks somewhat straight again, the roof flat and clean, the shingles uniform. For the oldest surviving building in Greenwich, it looks quite modern.
However, I cannot help but feel a vague sense of adventure as I squeeze through the overgrown hedges: lush, dense, wild and untamed with time. Suddenly, the dull concrete of Sherman Avenue is gone, hidden behind a thick wall of foliage. Only the faded Lyon House lies ahead, beckoning, whispering, tempting me with secrets lost to history. And there is something wonderful in the rough oak walls as I touch them, the wooden grooves pressing against the criss-crossing lines of my palm.
The wind comes rushing through the branches of naked trees, seeping through layers of clothing and hockey equipment. The air is still in the Lyon backyard, the world quiet; even the birds are huddled away, asleep in their nests. For a moment I can almost
hear boots tromping down the old staircase, wet and muddy from the apple orchard nearby. I am afraid I might shatter it all the next second.
The colonization of America. The Cultural Revolution. World War II.
This history is not mine. My knowledge of these events is confined to the pages of my social-studies textbook, and I know nothing about persecution, war, or daily hardship. I have been seasick for a day or two, but never in the underbelly of a ship, crowded, stifled, praying to avoid discovery. I learn Chinese in the friendly setting of weekend classroom, not in charred, rescued books out of a bonfire.
As the first-born of an immigrant family, I am taught to welcome traditions and cultures formed hundreds of years ago. I am taught to respect my ancestors because I am told so much happiness in my life is thanks to so much sadness, pain, and sorrow in theirs.
My life is undeniably comfortable. The lives of our ancestors and forefathers have been far from comfortable, wrought instead by decades of war and developing countries. These “revolutionary” events in history, so obscure to my peers and I, only make the past harder to understand and empathize with. We remain dependent upon the limits of our text book knowledge for any sort of information about the past. No matter how hard I try, I find I cannot open-heartedly embrace history and heritage with only written words to serve as proof.
But actually touching the Lyon House, I can almost feel the memories and experiences coursing through the wood: the Lyons gathered around the stone fireplace, warming the house on cold winters— two brothers sleeping on the porch, guarding the livestock from wolves. More than three-hundred years of life within the Lyon House pressed against my palm.
All legends and stories will fade over time, but the physical structures themselves must remain. Greenwich schools have to reinforce this fact, possibly inviting members of the Preservation Trust to share their mission with students, or taking classes to visit the lesser-known landmarks in our town during field-trips. The Board of Education should also consider embedding a unit about preservation of historical sites inside our Social Studies or English curriculum. Through this unit, students may develop a deeper connection with these old, forgotten buildings, and maybe be encouraged to donate and restore the Lyon House to the museum it was once destined to be. Even if a visit to the house itself is not available, students could visit the Greenwich Lost & Preserved exhibit within the Bruce Museum specifically designed by the Greenwich Preservation Trust. The ways to learn, to give, to help, are many and everywhere. We just have to welcome them before it becomes too late.
Our generation needs to be taught how to love a time that is not their own, and preserve a history that will eventually belong to our future, and the futures still ahead. The places we are in danger of losing are models for not only who we are, but also who we are to be. They teach us what to champion in life and what to avoid at all costs. They are our pillars in a constant stream of change, safe havens to hold on to and rebuild our ethics, morals, values, and characters. In a civilization of everlasting change, of see-saw trends and daily epiphanies, we must be able to rely on them for direction should we ever lose our way. We cannot let them go. We cannot give up these things past generations have worked so hard to save. Instead, we must hold on as tightly as we can, cherishing everything that has been left to us and remembering all that has been lost. This way, we will not feel the past is somewhere far and foreign, but understand that history is really our root.
The past is not always beautiful. With its shingles stained with time, the ground dry and bare, it is a miracle the Thomas Lyon House still stands. I tell myself that someday I will take my son there, a black-haired boy of my own, who will see something more than tired oak walls. But he would need to be a sentimental child and most children are not that sentimental; they long for the brand-new sparkling things, not the old worn things that rest softly on our memories, safeguarding the past and often reminding the future. Someday, in the not too far off future, we will grow old and allow the next generation to take our place; hopefully the Lyon House will still stand on the corner of Bryan and Putnam when the transition is over, and light the way for them, as it did for me.