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A Marquis event: Lafayette entertains at Eastport Elementary

A Marquis event: Lafayette entertains at Eastport Elementary
Schneider has portrayed Lafayette for 12 years, and admires the Frenchman's outgoing personality and zest for life. (By Joshua McKerrow - The Capital, Capital Gazette)

He helped build forts to defend the harbor.

More than 200 years later, he was back in Annapolis to build bridges.

The Marquis de Lafayette forged relationships with students and history buffs in a whirlwind series of stops last week. He even a gave a 9-year-old a fencing lesson.

"This is a dance," he told Miles Forrest as he demonstrated proper footwork, "and like any other dance you must practice, practice, practice."

Miles seemed quite ready to do just that after Lafayette's presentation at Eastport Elementary School. "He was exciting and he liked America," the student said. "And I liked fencing."

In addition to his school visit, Lafayette - aka Mark Schneider of Colonial Williamsburg - dined with history aficionados, led a workshop on historic interpretation, and gave a talk for the general public. His two days in the city came courtesy of the Historic Annapolis Foundation.

"Are you not all glad you're members of this great nation?" Schneider asked the students.

Molly Parrish, 10, was pretty impressed. She'd already seen him once before at Williamsburg.

"He was very cool," she said. "He's very bold."

It was hard to miss.

Schneider burst into the school cafeteria, speaking loudly and full of energy. He mixed history with humor, asking one girl if he'd seen her at a party six months earlier.

"I really liked the fact that he wasn't afraid to make the kind of entrance he made," said Ivan Michaels, 9. "It was so loud. You could tell he was proud to do what he was doing."

Schneider has been portraying Lafayette for 12 years. He enjoys assuming the role because of his great admiration for the war hero. He has a much harder time portraying Benedict Arnold, one of the other historical figures he's depicted in his 15 years at Williamsburg.

Lafayette, Schneider said, believed in the fight for American freedom so deeply he disobeyed the king and queen of France to come here. At age 19, he paid for a boat to take him to America and offered to serve in the Army without pay. He boarded the boat in disguise and used the journey to hone his English skills.

"Have you ever been so excited about a cause and someone told you you couldn't take part?" he asked the students, slipping into a French accent. (Schneider is fluent in French). "Who has experienced that? I think everyone has. Who has disobeyed their parents before?"

Lafayette's own parents died when he was young. His father passed away when he was 2, and he lost his mother at 13. He ended up looking to George Washington as a father figure.

"To me, he was truly an aristocrat without the name; he was a nobleman without the title," said Schneider, speaking as the Marquis.

Students asked about other details of Lafayette's life, as well as subjects ranging from the type of weapons used to fight the Revolutionary War to whether any girls fought.

Schneider ended his appearance with same enthusiasm as when he began. "God Bless you all and God bless the United State of America."

On a role

Schneider, 43, is a lifelong history lover who served in Army before he began working at Williamsburg.

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He got a chance to portray Lafayette when another historic interpreter moved on. It helped that Schneider knew French and could ride a horse.

Although the real Lafayette was much taller, 6-foot-1 to 5-foot-6, and much younger, Schneider said he relishes the demands of slipping into the hero's shoes.

"There are challenges, to be sure," he said. "You're taking on a big responsibility when you're portraying someone else."

Lafayette came to Annapolis in 1781, staying a few weeks while he and other soldiers fortified the harbor's defenses. He'd already been here once before, in 1777, and visited a total of five times. The last was in 1824, according to HAF, as part of grand tour of the country he was invited to take by President James Monroe.

"For me, you have to keep the passion of history alive ... to preserve and further the story of these great people," Schneider said.

He doesn't provide "all the answers," but hopefully enough information to spur interest in additional investigation.

He's still trying to dig up more information on Lafayette himself, trying to perfect his craft. "I still haven't gotten him right."

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