The task of a teacher is to teach citizenship, not politics. Patriotism, not polarization. This is an account of one day I did just that. The history lesson was to understand and respect the office of the President, and to feel included in the community of Americans.
One day our class traversed a time warp and spanned 200 years of Georgian Heritage between math problems. It was January 20, 1989, the 200th anniversary of the presidency.
The morning’s work was laid out a bit early. As students arrived they buzzed excitedly, “This is it!” “Let’s beat up on the work so we can get up closer to the action.” “Aren’t you glad we finally got a good TV in our class so we could be there when it happens?”
We had learned of secret ballots, elections, integrity of winning and losing, and were ready for the inauguration.
The students had read of history, tradition, and played Wheel of Fortune computer games about presidents. We even had five minutes a day of rapt attention to presidential trivia–the stuff of which leading lives are made.
The stage of our souls was set. The video was on. When Peter Jennings came on the students recognized him and the cast of characters of whom he spoke.
The kids were impressed with the use of the two Bibles by the man who intended to bring a “kinder and gentler nation” into focus. One boy said,l “I bet right after this someone carefully rushes Washington’s Bible back to the Smithsonian!”
I pointed out that this was a page of history. That’s why you ladies and gentlemen are so important!” Another student chimed in, “I guess that’s why you want us to know history–it’s our world now.” (I smiled as I breathed a sigh of relief, and hope. Maybe this is working. . . they seem to care about their place in the world.)
During commercials students feverishly worked on their subjects–they knew their teacher made no exceptions about work since she felt she hadn’t done her job any day their work wasn’t done.
And she knew this class of high risk students could come along far more than a grade level this year–but only if they were convinced to steer at their own helm. Kids who have fallen out of the net have to be taught to swim faster and enjoy it. It isn’t fair, but it is a fact!
During off moments we were passing news clippings and other tidbits around our class circle. When the new president said he wanted Americans to be the “1000 points of light” some of the students started drawing that on another page. I could hear their dots echoing in the silence of listening.
When President Bush addressed his comments to the young people in the audience, the room was frozen in attention. They even softly breathed answers and comments at times. A couple observed that he cared about kids not messing up their lives with drugs or alcohol. Said another, “It’s like he knows about the temptations we studied when we read of Narnia by C.S. Lewis.”
They were impressed that the new First Lady loved kids. Some had noticed already from the nightly news that she was more committed to literacy than fashion. I mentioned that 1 out of 5 Texans are illiterate and a boy looked around and observed, “I just looked around the room and realized it won’t ever be one of us. I guess we’re kinda lucky.” A girl next to him said, “I hope Mrs. Barbara Bush can help them learn to see novels on the TV you told us we had in our brain, just like you do.” I smiled.
When the Reagans left, someone asked why some people stood. I explained that it was out of respect, and that it was probably a bit hard to say goodbye, and that times like this held both sadness and happiness. Moments later some of my students stood up in silence to be a part of that respect.
I marveled to see how were were capturing the moment for learning about our government and the world. We recorded the event by each writing in his or her own way on a certificate that we were there when the White House got a second George.
When I turned the television off, one kid uttered, “We did it!”, seeming at once to realize that we Americans are in it together. We felt lucky, proud, and challenged as we returned to the next reading group. A new breeze was blowing, the fresh air of democracy in the next generation.
The TV was off. But history wasn’t. We would forever be a part of the day George was here. . . and we were too. (Hope the other George enjoyed it as much as we did!)
G o o d l u c k G e o r g e !
Copyright 1989 by Hildra Tague. Obtain permission from author for use online or in print.