Months of “commitment, and determination” have paid off for North Shore Middle School graduate Greg Cantwell. On June 12, Greg took second place in National History Day, a competition at the University of Maryland, in which students demonstrate their knowledge of local, state, national and world history. His video project, “John Lewis Sitting Down to Take a Stand: The Fight Against Jim Crow and African American Inequality,” was recognized for its historical value.
“It was a nerve-wracking and thrilling experience,” Greg said. “Once I heard my project’s name at the contest when the winners were announced, I was so relieved.”
Cantwell, 13, began working on his project last December, for a National History Day elective class at the middle school. He saw Lewis, a civil rights leader and a longtime member of the U.S. House of Representatives, in the news one day and was intrigued by his life story and his contributions to the country and to the civil rights movement. Greg described his subject’s life as a “fairy tale.”
“He never quits, he keeps everything together, and he’s always been true to himself for his people,” Greg said. “When he wants to get things done, it’s business time. That’s what he did back then, and amazingly, he’s still doing that today.”
Greg was entered in the National History Day’s sixth- to eighth-grade division, having finished first in Long Island History Day in March and second in New York History Day in April. Overall, he competed against hundreds of students.
“I wanted to learn about history more than anything else,” he said. “I could care less about winning. It was all about the experience.”
His interest in history grew last year, when he started following the presidential campaign. He explained that seeing all the “ruckus” over politics has turned him into an advocate for change.
“Even though I can’t make a direct impact right now, it’s important to know what’s going on, because this will be my future,” Greg said. “We can’t change the past, but we can definitely change the future. This is a job that we all need to do.”
He received a letter from Lewis on June 20, acknowledging his video, thanking him for sharing Lewis’s story and encouraging him to believe that anything is possible. “I thought I was doing this project just to keep learning,” Greg said, “but it was very rewarding to get this letter and to win these awards.”
His 10-minute video chronicles Lewis’s life as well as the country’s history of prejudice and inequality, and has voice-over narration, background music and audio clips of Lewis and other civil rights activists. One of the skills he learned was how to edit video, and he credited his National History Day teacher, Chris Gill, with helping him complete the project. While Gill was strict at times, Greg said, his critiques made the class fun. “He definitely did a lot of great stuff to help my project get to this point,” he said.
Greg’s mother, Theresa, who teaches social studies at Jericho Middle School, said that her school had the History Day program for several years, and commended the North Shore School District for adding it to the curriculum.
“This was great for him, because this was the first time where he got to compete outside of sports,” Theresa said of her son. “He got to compete against many other people, which is just amazing.”
Greg said he loves to stay busy, and plays basketball and soccer during the school year. He treated the History Day competition as if it were a championship game. “Having that mindset made me push myself to complete this project,” he said. “I’m always looking at what I can do better.”
He added that anyone is capable of putting together a project like he did. “It’s not just about winning or the project itself,” he said. “It’s about being able to put in the time and effort, so that one day you can look back and feel proud about what you’ve accomplished.”
He plans to enter next year’s contest as well — and dreams of meeting Lewis someday. “I don’t know everything about what’s going on in our country, or everything that happened in the past,” Greg said. “I don’t think anyone does. But I can try to get as close as I can so that one day, I can influence this country with my voice.”