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History Day Champion Shares His Love Of The Past

Max Mateer wearing some of his National History Day medals.
Hunter Morrison
WUWF Public Media
Max Mateer wearing some of his National History Day medals.

It’s not every day a high school student writes a play about American history. Max Mateer, a 2021 Pensacola High School graduate, has written and performed a one-man production in both the State and National History Day competitions since he was in the sixth grade.

“I was in middle school, and I was a part of the gifted class there, taught by the wonderful Grace Freeman,” Mateer said. “She made it a requirement for all of the students to compete in a project called the history fair, or what is more officially known as the National History Day competition in which you create a project and fit it into an annual theme.”

Max admits he wanted to one-up his older sister, who had also competed. Even though history fair participation was a requirement of the gifted program, he found that he loved it.

Max competed in National History Day up to his senior year of high school. He is a 3-time national winner and 7-time state champion.

“It’s a project that allows students to present their own analysis and their own findings on topics throughout history before a panel of judges, and before each other as well,” said Mateer. “In creating this competition, it creates a sort of harmony between all these students who have these different perspectives on either the same topic or different topics and get to see how they coalesce into one big, strange lace of history.”

The National History Day competition is broken into five categories. Participants can create a theatrical play, website, documentary, exhibit, or paper, based on that year’s theme. This year’s theme was Communication in History.

Max chose to present his project in the form of a play titled, “They Spilt Not Blood: Beware the Fine Print.”

Max’s play highlights the factors that led up to the American Revolution. More specifically, the play details the driving forces that led to the colonists’ rebellion, and how writers contributed to that rebellion.

Max Mateer's Play: "They Spilt Not Blood: Beware the Fine Print"

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the competition was held virtually this year.

“Normally, you perform live, but with this I had to submit a video,” said Mateer. “It didn’t change the performance necessarily too much, I think it just affected me personally because in all honesty, I work better with a crowd.”

Performing virtually allowed Max to revise and edit his performance. He used his parents’ recording studio to film it.

“For the past seven years, I do everything you think is entailed in a play,” said Mateer. “I write a script, I construct the costumes, I make the set, I memorized said script, I get a soundtrack to go along with it, there’s interactions, there’s blocking, there’s rehearsals, there’s distress, there’s the crying and everything that comes with it. It’s just part of the process.”

The high school valedictorian also has a lengthy resume, and much of it can be credited to his love of history. It includes interviews with high-profile people, including the son of the former Soviet premier Nikita Khruschev, whom he interviewed for his 8th grade project on the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Max found that Khrushchev’s son, Sergei, taught at Brown University. He was alarmed when the return call he expected came a day early while he was in school.

“I gave him my phone number and said, ‘I’d love to talk to you over the phone,’” said Mateer. “We worked it out and we were going to do Tuesday morning at 8 a.m. Well, Monday morning rolls around, I’m in science class and my phone starts buzzing. No one called me back then, so I looked, and it’s his number. I was like ‘it’s not Tuesday, is there an emergency, is there a crisis?’”

In a panic, Max had no idea what to do. He let Khrushchev go to voicemail.

“I was like ‘Should I do that?’” said Mateer. “The man’s father used to have enough nukes to blow up the entire world, should I let him go to voicemail? How do I process that?”

When asked how he believes historians will treat recent events, including the COVID-19 pandemic, Max said “I think that depends on how you define history. It depends on how far we are from it. Twenty-five years from now, I think we’ll have a much different concept on COVID-19 as we will 200 years from now.”

“In my opinion, you can’t really treat something as history until all the generations who experienced it are dead. I think anything else is subject to way more bias than is fair.”

Max also said that historians may judge COVID-19 differently in different parts of the world.

“Two hundred years from now, it may be seen as a blemish on a lot of the world, but a single blip in the western world’s radar,” said Mateer. “Or it may be seen as the shortcomings of government leadership and the ways in which health care and standard of living were victimized for the lower classes. Usually, history has a tendency to glorify the struggling and condemn those in charge. Or we might see nothing.”

Max plans to attend Georgia Tech and double major in mechanical engineering and literature media and communication. He thinks it would be fun to work for Boston Dynamic or the CIA, but he’s still figuring it out.

Max encourages all middle and high school students to participate in the National History Day competition. He believes it’s a great learning experience that teaches you not only about history but about how to improve your academic and professional skillset.

“History’s greatest is tool is not education, nor is it experience, it’s empathy,” said Mateer. “It’s the ability to look outside yourself and say ‘this story is not mine, but it’s just as important,’ and it’s my job to ensure that everyone’s story is told. Never doubt the power of a good story; that’s what makes people people; that’s what takes us from human beings to a society. It’s about the people, first and foremost, not events, not dates, not machines, not wars or resources, it’s about people, first and foremost, last and always.”

Hunter joined WUWF in 2021 as a student reporter.