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George Washington, Alexander the Great,and Papou

My grandfather, or “Papou,” as we like to call him, is a humble man who still drives a red 1995 Ford Taurus. He always wears his brown low-cut boots and grey slacks, and will, at all times, have one of his 99-cent baseball caps on his head. His daily routine consists of driving to 86th street to pick up the newspaper, checking in on his brother at the Veterans Hospital, and having coffee with some of his friends. He seems like any other older man relaxing and enjoying his “golden years.” Had I not been a curious eleven-year-old, I might still believe just that; but it was then that I discovered Papou was far from ordinary.

When you are a little boy in 6th grade, you think that every immigration story involves a boat and Ellis Island.  You imagine families tightly packed on the deck of a vessel, eagerly awaiting their arrival in the land where “the streets are paved with gold.” I had assumed that this was my grandfather’s story until, one day, while snooping around my grandparents’ attic, I came across an old photograph that was nestled inside a small coffee can. After I wiped away the dust and stared at the photo of the soldier, I ran downstairs to my grandfather and asked him, “Papou, can you tell me about this picture?”

For the next few hours, my grandfather mesmerized me with his stories of Nazis and World War II, combat and The Korean War.  I assumed Papou simply left Greece, became an American citizen, and then lived happily ever after. I never imagined that scar on his left leg was a hidden remnant of his experiences as a soldier. His stories had me hooked.

A few weeks later, when my history teacher, Ms. Gilson, announced that we would be participating in the National History Day Fair competition, it was an easy decision for me to research the Korean War, the event that had damaged the leg of my very own Papou.   Not only was I excited by the war stories themselves, as any eleven-year-old would be, but I felt obligated to bring these stories of sacrifice to light.  I didn’t want his scar to be a secret any longer.

My budding historian instincts made me want to fill in Papou’s stories with more context. I rented documentaries about the war and about soldiers who were on the frontlines; I googled as much information as I could. What I learned made me realize that my grandfather was just as much a part of history as George Washington or Alexander the Great. History wasn’t textbook blabber; it was stories of real people–women, men– grandfathers.

When I asked Papou why he had never spoken about his scar before, he responded, “Nobody ever asked.”  From that moment on, my learning became personal.  When I’m taught an event in history, Papou’s scar, which is indelible on his body and in my mind, motivates me to learn more than dates and important figures.  It drives me to fully understand the human impact of history.

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