Young docents guide Gadsby’s tours

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A couple of days a year Katie Connor dons the garb of an 18th century girl and whisks guests at Gadsbys Tavern back to a time where ice was a luxury and the nations first president attended balls in his honor.

The seventh grader from Mount Vernon regularly joins a dozen other children of varying ages as one of the museums junior docents, welcoming visitors and explaining the history behind the centuries-old taverns rooms and their contents. Connor got her start after her mother, Isabel Walls, saw an ad for the position in a local newspaper when she was in the fifth grade. 

An avid reader, Connor had long been fascinated by history. She was surprised to discover a talent for acting. 

I do like history and it did seem like an interesting way to give tours. What is a better way to learn than to share it with other people? she said. I never thought Id be an actor, so it came as a surprise to me. Its sort of like dressing up, and then telling people about the tavern.

Its not exactly acting, said Michele Longo, who runs the program for the tavern museum, but it draws on some of the same skills. Docents are expected to digest the buildings history and then share it with guests. The job requires presentation skills, being able to use an object be it silverware or a wooden chest to explore history, she said. 

We just need to focus on helping them take that information and translating it to a presentation that people find interesting, Longo said. We do presentation skills and we do a more in-depth look at things. How do you use an object to talk about history? Actually showing things and using [them] as a gateway to the past.

The program began two years ago. There already were opportunities for high school students to work with the historic Royal Street tavern and staff hoped to get younger children involved in local history, Longo said. 

Potential docents have to try out for the program, coming in on Super Bowl Sunday and showcasing their charisma, public speaking skills and their grasp of history. Those selected go through several weekend training sessions, honing their presentation ability and soaking up tavern history.

Then its up to them to bring Gadsbys Tavern back to life for patrons. Each takes a room, learns as much as they can about it, and awaits the crowds. 

While theyre not leading tours, just taking center stage can be harrowing at first, Connor said. 

Sometimes you get nervous when you first start, but when you do it over and over again it gets easier, she said. I guess the waiting around for a tour to come [is the hardest part]. Sometimes you have these breaks and youre sitting around in your room and wondering if there is a tour coming. Sometimes there is nervous anticipation … Youll be waiting for that door to open and another group to walk in. 

Walls maintains the program has done wonders for her daughter despite occasional jitters. Shes grown more confident and the environment at the tavern is one of caring and support, the mother said. 

The fact is that she can get up in front of a group of people and not just talk about the room, but answer their questions, Isabel said. Shell make them laugh. I think its really been a boost to her confidence. Thats probably helped her in her interest in acting. She can get up in front of people … She really has a head start.

Its been a win-win experience for Longo. The docents absorb local history and the visitors love to see the children in action, she said. 

On our end, beyond it just being really fun to work with these kids, we started [the program] because we thought there should be an opportunity for kids, Longo said. We always have positive comments, even if [the visitors] didnt expect to see the kids giving the tours … Obviously, theres another generation to pick up where we leave off.

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