To recover some sense of what this country could be, I recommend chaperoning a school trip to Washington, D.C. -- and it doesn’t hurt if it’s 70 degrees and 3,750 cherry trees are in blossom. Yes, in early April I accompanied to the nation’s capitol 70 fifth graders, their parents and teachers, from Isaac Dickson Elementary School, named for a distinguished Asheville, N.C., resident who was born a slave. I learned that heartening possibilities exist.
For example, the students weren’t concerned about what they would say to John Boehner if he were to emerge from the Speaker’s office in Emancipation Hall as we passed by. The entire dysfunctional nature of current national politics was outside of their focus. And in fact, as we followed our guide by several familiar faces in gray suits, smiling in a friendly fashion, the kids returned nonpartisan smiles.
To be in the capitol of the United States or to stand outside the White House fence were unalloyed thrills for most of the students. Over and over they said, "I can’t believe we’re actually in Washington." After nearly a year of studying U.S. history, they were well prepared, knew the governmental structure and were appropriately in awe of standing in the shadow of so much history -- and power.
The wow factor was much on display at the Smithsonian and the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, where the students reacted to the actual, battered space shuttle Discovery; storied airplanes from the early days of flight; the SR-71 Blackbird and a huge, sleek Concorde. Students even seemed to have some sense of the significance of the Enola Gay, which rained atomic destruction on Hiroshima.
Even though the Kennedy brothers could not have meant so much to them as to the adults, students nevertheless paused with respect at the eternal flame and listened to the guide’s description of the evolution of Arlington Cemetery from the days the land and mansion belonged to Gen. Robert E. Lee. We followed Lincoln from Ford’s Theater to the home where he died. Maybe an issue for some students was living in a small city in the western North Carolina Blue Ridge and coming to the big city on the Potomac, but they did not react to North-South any more than to Democrat-Republican. It was all one country to them.
They responded equally to the Pentagon 9/11 park, pondering the messages encoded in the way the monuments faced and names and dates were arranged; and also the Vietnam and Korean monuments on the National Mall, which, tired as we were from strenuous days and evenings, might have escaped them. They seemed to grasp the importance of size at the Lincoln Memorial. When we returned to the Mall in the evening, following a teacher’s bouncing red flashlight, we all gasped at the Jefferson, FDR, and Martin Luther King memorials by moonlight, even as we attempted to stay together among the streaming throngs of Cherry Blossom Festival visitors.
That energetic moon walk was climactic yet more awaited the next day, when we visited Frederick Douglass’ Cedar Hill home and saw the film of Douglass’s story -- from slave to abolitionist, women’s rights activist, author, journalist and most respected black orator of his day -- that said plainly that race and class, even after Lincoln, still do divide the country but, as did Douglass and Isaac Dickson, we too can persevere.
At least, that’s how it looks from the White Oaks.
A writer and environmentalist, Lauren R. Stevens is a regular Eagle contributor.