Several years ago, when I was running an academic summer camp for high school students in Boston, I booked the entire program on a tour of the Freedom Trail, the famous guided walk among the iconic sites of the city’s downtown connected to the American Revolution. It was a hot day, and our guide—a big, burly man in his thirties with dark stubble covering his face—wore pantaloons, a waistcoat, a woolen jacket, and a wig. He was a charismatic storyteller, with a knack for bringing long-dead historical personages and situations to life. He gave the whole tour in the character of John Adams, I think.
After the tour ended, we briefly chatted, and I learned that he was an actor by training. At the time I was in graduate school studying American history, and although the colonial period was not my specialty, I knew enough about the eighteenth century to appreciate that he had done a great job—not only conveying a sense of everyday life in pre-revolutionary Boston but also, with considerable panache and drama, narrating the events leading up to the outbreak of war in 1775. I had a certain nostalgia for the world of the theater at the time, having once been an actor myself back in college, and I remember feeling envy—also some pity—for this man as he loudly declaimed stories about the Boston Tea Party and Paul Revere’s midnight ride while sweating profusely in 90-degree heat before our group of twenty sixteen-year-olds. Though they complained of the heat, the kids said that the tour was one of the highlights of the entire two-week camp, and I agreed.
I thought of this man—not often, but regularly—over the next few years as I was wrapping up my dissertation and grimly contemplating my career prospects in academic history. If all else fails, I thought, I could do what that guy did. I continued to run the academic camps for a couple more summers; worked an assortment of teaching, tutoring, and editorial gigs; and eventually got hired as a part-time adjunct professor at a college near Boston: my chosen line of work…sort of.