The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, October 26, 2007


Swansons' poultry farm. (Photo by Ellen Huber)

Our family goes investigating:
three weeks, 20 landmarks, one third-grade project

Park car. Bundle kids and self out. Wander around a little bit, pack everyone back into the car, drive another short distance, repeat.

It felt a lot like trick-or-treating, only this was early October and broad daylight. And the goal of our many stops and starts wasn't candy; it was photos, drawings and written observations.

Like his third-grade peers all over town, my son Tim was up to his elbows in the Carlisle Investigations project, a three-week program of locating a variety of local landmarks: the Town Clock, the Swansons' poultry farm, the oldest house in Carlisle — whose current residents are very patient with the parade of families gazing up at their chimney throughout this yearly siege. If there was another carload of third-grade boys pulled over by the site we were visiting, Tim would invariably forget about the mission and start horsing around; if the car instead held girls, he would stare at the ground and pretend not to see them, while they engaged in the exact same activity toward him. Third-grade intergender relationships, I've decided, essentially consist of one big case of simulated myopia.

There are many aspects of the Carlisle Investigations project that I love. Mostly, it's the value placed on the history and heritage of our own town and community. Moreover, as a journalist, I appreciate the emphasis on observation rather than pure research. I also think the focus on time management is extremely useful. The kids have three weeks in which to visit ten or more different places, taking photos and jotting down notes. It's a great way for them to learn to plan out their time and figure out how to pace the different steps of the project, from strategizing their route to making the visits to compiling the final notebook.

And there are some things I don't like so much about this project. It would be virtually impossible, both for reasons of personal safety and roadway hazards, for any eight-year-old to travel to ten different points in Carlisle alone; parents need to devote significant time to accompanying them. Aside from the time, it's also quite a lot of driving. Tim and I were at least able to cut back on the automotive component a little bit by riding our bikes into the center of town and visiting five different landmarks that are a stone's throw from the rotary, but we have the luxury of living on the Bedford Road footpath, which makes bike and foot travel into the center far more feasible for us than for most Carlisle families.

But putting ideological concerns aside, it's a lot of fun. As we made our way around town, I wondered about the variety of approaches families were taking to the assignment. Since not much more than drawings, photos and written notes are officially required of the kids, they are each free to put their own spin on it. Some families focus on intense historical research, looking up town records to find out more about the original use of the Old Meetinghouse or the 19th-century occupants of the Marsh House. Others concentrate on the flora and fauna, taking botanical samples from the Cranberry Bog and the Town Forest. No doubt influenced by my journalistic tendencies, Tim opted to conduct a brief interview with town clockwinder Rob Koning about the weekly task of winding the clock, a job we learned Rob has held since he was fourteen years old, which impressed Tim quite a bit.

I told my sister, who lives out of state, about the project. She responded with some conjectures as to what the Carlisle police log might look like the week after the Carlisle Investigations project: "Child seen staring at tree branches. Negative find. Child seen gazing up at church steeple. Negative find. Small group of children found searching School Street curb next to second Brick schoolhouse for marker indicating site of first Brick schoolhouse. Negative find of both marker and children." (Incidentally, where is that marker? Has anyone ever actually found it? We certainly couldn't.)

Sharing my sister's imaginary police log with a few friends, I discovered that one third-grade family's Carlisle Investigations actually did end up in the police log. As Martha Talbot tells it, she had the creative idea of taking her son to Castle Rock late at night for a moonlit view. On the short walk down the path, her sandal broke and she tripped, causing her car keys to tumble from her pocket into the underbrush. Rather than search for the car keys in the dark, she decided to call home and ask her husband to bring a second set. But the only place she could get cell phone reception was farther down Rockland Road, in front of a resident's house, and she had to talk very loudly. The resident became alarmed at the noise and called to report a party going on in the street.

So Martha's son got a brief lesson in civic responsibility along with his landmark explorations. The rest of us have learned things we didn't know about town history and topography. And I suspect one of these days, the residents of the oldest house in Carlisle just might announce some astonishing news: the discovery of an even older house, located miles and miles and miles away from them, an absolute must-see for anyone on the Carlisle Investigations trail.

2007 The Carlisle Mosquito