Max Mateer, a student who will be entering his sophomore year at Pensacola High School in the fall, took home first prize this month at the National History Day Contest finals in College Park, Maryland. It’s the second year in a row that Max has taken first prize in the performance category. He says it was entering the contest in the first place that actually sparked his love of history. "It was part of the gifted class that I was in. There's a class at the middle school I went to, Gulf Breeze Middle School, for sixth, seventh and eighth graders, and a part of the required curriculum was to participate in the National History Day Competition". Max entered the contest in sixth, seventh and eighth grades, winning the top prize last year for the first time.
"More than half a million students participate in this contest and less than 1% make it to the national finals, which Max won" said Gary Pettit, the Director of Communications for National History Day. He says The National History Day Contest began in 1974 at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio. "It was started by (Dr. David) Van Tassel, one of the history professors there who saw the power of project-based learning in things like science fairs and said 'Hey, I want to do that for history'."
There are five different categories in the contest; paper, performance, website, documentary and exhibit. Max has always entered the performance category, winning last year with a presentation about the Cuban Missile Crisis. Max says he talked about a man named Vasili Arkhipov. "(He) was a Soviet sub fleet commander who refused to fire a nuclear torpedo with the strength of the Hiroshima bomb. And because (of his actions) on that single day, he actually allowed Kennedy and Khrushchev to negotiate the next day and (agree to have all the missiles) pulled out of Cuba." In addition to Vasili Arkhipov, Max portrayed Bobby Kennedy, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr who was an historian and aide to President Kennedy, and a student about to enter college.
So after winning with an exciting topic like the missile crisis, Max went into this year’s competition with a very different subject: President James K. Polk. "The theme this year was Conflict and Compromise in History. And I originally discovered James K. Polk, our eleventh president, through an American History class taught by the same teacher that was my gifted teacher. So obviously it was very close to home at that point. And basically I originally got on the topic because (my teacher came in) and I asked her about how there's only one paragraph (in the text) dedicated to (President Polk) and something seems off about it, like there's more to him but (the text) doesn't talk about it. She started listing on (her) fingers all of (Polk's) campaign promises, and how he did them all in one term. Every single campaign promise! Which (the previous year) in the heat of the election season was absolutely mind boggling. I had this chance to (learn about) this president who made four campaign promises, and accomplished every single one of them." Mateer says from there he began developing his thesis for the project which was "By leveraging compromise to manage conflict, and intentionally starting conflict to achieve compromise, James K. Polk created the iconic shape of the United States and expanded our reach from sea to shining sea".
From the local competition to the regionals and the finals, Max ended up doing his performance close to a dozen times before being declared the winner. Gary Pettit says all the winners walk away a bit richer. "The first place students get a prize sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities, one of our major sponsors, that is worth one thousand dollars. So they get a thousand dollars and the title "NEH Scholar".
As for Max Mateer, he plans on entering again this coming school year and going for the three-peat. "I legitimately adore this competition so much. And so I am willing to do it as many years as I can. I'm hoping to do it for the next three years of high school, I might take one year as a break just to focus on college and stuff like that. But I'm really excited for next year!"
The topic of the next National History Day Contest is Triumph and Tragedy in History. Max says he already has ideas on his entry, but declined to spill any historical beans just yet.