COLUMBIA — Before stepping on stage, recent Rock Bridge High School graduate Chris Ghan pulls a gray wig over his hair, slides on a Revolutionary War-era jacket and slips on a pair of old soccer socks. With a few more finishing touches, Ghan is ready to portray American Founding Father Benjamin Franklin.
“Sometimes I get nervous immediately before a performance, but I’m never nervous during a performance,” Ghan said later. “It doesn’t matter how many people I’m in front of or where I am. I’m just doing the same performance that I’ve been working on for months.”
No, Ghan doesn’t have a role in a play or a summer job doing historical re-enactments. He’s one of two Columbia students who will compete in the National History Day competition at the University of Maryland-College Park. From Sunday through Thursday, young history buffs from across the country will compete for top honors in a host of categories: performances, original papers, exhibits, documentaries and Web sites.
National History Day is a yearlong program dedicated to teaching and learning history. Students grades six through 12 must advance through regional and state competition before they’re eligible for nationals. This year, more than 700,000 students and 40,000 teachers took part nationwide. Missouri’s state competition boasted 546 entries from 78 schools.
Ghan wrote and performed “The Spirit of Liberty: Ben Franklin and Slavery” at the state-level National History Day competition in April. He took first place in the individual performance division, earning a spot at the national competition.
“Ben Franklin is an American icon, and he’s also a really interesting person and a colorful character,” Ghan said. “With performance, you really want somebody who you can convey a strong personality for them.”
As Franklin, Ghan emphasizes dramatic points by pacing on stage and pounding his cane. Toward the end of his 10-minute performance, “Franklin” hoists his tired legs onto a bench, grumbling about his old age.
But Ghan’s portrayal involves more than personality. It’s a history lesson tailored to this year’s National History Day theme, “Conflict and Compromise in History.”
Ghan said he performed as Benjamin Franklin because he was a man who loved compromise.
“It’s all about how Benjamin Franklin’s relationship with slavery developed and changed throughout his life and ultimately culminated in him becoming one of this country’s first abolitionists,” Ghan said.
This is the second time Ghan has taken the National History Day stage. He represented Missouri his sophomore year, portraying Harry Truman. In fact, Ghan has been involved with National History Day since middle school. Originally, he wrote scholarly papers, but in his freshman year, he found his niche in the performance category. Ghan decided to take a break his junior year but came back for one last stint as a senior competitor.
“I wanted to do something this year because it was my last chance,” he said.
Also earning a ticket to the National History Day contest was Billy Swift, who will be an eighth-grader at Columbia Catholic School. He placed second in the individual exhibit category at the state competition for his exhibit on Lloyd Gaines, who was denied admission to the MU Law School in 1936 because he was black.
“The longest part was researching,” Swift said. “One day I went to Jefferson City to go to Lincoln (University) where he went to college.”
After spending many of his weekends perfecting his exhibit, Swift said winning second place made him feel like everything was lifted off his shoulders. Hard work aside, he gave much of the credit to his teacher, Widget Ewing.
“She really helped me find out what I needed to do to win,” Swift said.
Swift will go to the national competition with his parents, Melinda and Bill Swift, and his teacher. He said he hopes to place, but he’s more excited about the experience.
“I just want to enjoy the opportunity and enjoy Washington, D.C.,” he said.
Ghan is similarly low-key about the national competition. “Realistically, I’d like to go out there and do the best that I can and see where it falls from there,” he said.
Nidhi Khurana, who will be an eighth-grader at Gentry Middle School, placed third in the junior individual performance category with her portrayal of Golda Meir, a founder of modern Israel. As an alternate, she will not make the trip.
Ghan’s father explained that the competition gets sharper with each level his son advances. A former state-level documentary judge for National History Day, Brent Ghan said he doesn’t envy the national judges.
“I don’t know how the judges at the national level do it because it’s a fine line determining the winners and the losers,” he said. “They’re all quality presentations.”
Ghan’s mother said the family’s just happy to make a return trip to the D.C. area. “The first thing we said when he came back after getting his award was, ‘Thanks for the vacation,’” Cheri Ghan joked.
For now, Ghan’s main goal is correctly portraying Benjamin Franklin.
“I best be getting home,” Ghan says, as his performance draws to a close. “Old man needs his sleep after all. And I always say, ‘Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.’”
Missourian reporters Regan Palmer, Courtney Flatt and Carla Schaffer contributed to this story.