November 6, 2009
George Washington's Letter
Earlier this week, I taught a seminar at a local university on the history of the book. I gave the presentation in a room filled with documentary treasures: several medieval manuscripts, a sixteenth-century Bible, a colonial American hymnal, and several textual artifacts from the Revolutionary War.
The audience consisted largely of retired professors, librarians, and undergraduates who were promised extra credit in exchange for attendance. They were a lively bunch, especially the two students seated in the back row who fought boredom by drawing stick figure sketches of a woman who looked a lot like me hanging from a noose.
My audience was most alert when I finished my presentation and invited them to take a closer look at the items on the table.
"You can touch anything except for the letter written by George Washington," I told them.
To their credit, the college students did their best to avoid the letter. In the end, however, most managed to accidentally manhandle it.
"I told you not to touch it!" I shrieked at two sophomores.
"We didn't!" they replied in unison.
"I saw you pick it up!" I said.
A few minutes later, I caught another student attempting to lift the letter off the table with the eraser end of a pencil.
"For real?" I asked, snatching the letter away from the two/twenty-year-old.
A long lecture followed about the importance of good listening skills. I explained that no one was allowed to touch the letter because the oils from our fingers can damage the paper and smudge the ink.
In the middle of my sermon, one student raised his hand.
"Yes?" I asked, visibly annoyed.
The student apologized for interrupting my moralizing speech, but thought it prudent to point out that at that very moment I was holding Washington's letter in ungloved hands.