Right before we left for Spring Break, I was so fortunate to join our 8th graders mid-trip in Washington, D.C. It was my first time on this rite of passage trip with the 8th grade, and what an experience it was! Throughout the six days, our students were “device-free,” a quality that was incredibly uncommon amongst the countless other student groups I saw while we were out there. The unplugged week not only led to our students engaging with one another in new and authentic ways, but it also allowed them to better engage with the history that surrounded them at every corner.
For the non-historians, often our connection to historical events is rooted in remembering where we were when the event happened, whom we were with, and how it made us feel. This is so true for me since I recall both events that were both enthralling and emotionally distressing. For me, those events ranged from my hometown Chicago Bulls winning their first title to the Berlin Wall coming down to watching the events of 9/11 unfold from my college common room. Those events were part of my life experience and bring back feelings of anger, fear, exhilaration, confusion and hope. As I think back to my middle school years, I remember learning about what were relatively recent events like the Civil Rights Movement, which had happened only twenty-five years prior to my learning about it. I had researched it and done a presentation on that period which I remember seemed so foreign and distant from the present-day world I was living in, leading to a more intellectual connection with history for me. No matter your age, I think we have all had experiences like this with both history that we were a part of history and history that we have viewed as a distant observer.
Part of my great enjoyment of the D.C. Trip can be attributed to the frequent opportunities for students and me to foster more than that aforementioned intellectual connection with history. At the Newseum, we had a chance to walk through a gallery of Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs from major events in our history. The ability of these personal photographs and their accompanying captions to capture the raw emotion for events that I was not alive for had a palpable impact on me, bringing me closer to moments which I know carry meaning and have shaped the lives of so many in ways that I can only hope to comprehend. Watching news footage of people covering this event and seeing their reactions also provided new windows into these historical events, which I am grateful for.
On the day we walked on the National Mall up to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, we were able to pass the exact location where Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream Speech.” I was ableto pull up on my phone pictures of the countless supporters MLK was looking at when he delivered his speech, which struck a chord with the few students who were around me at the time. Given the lack of social media to spread the word, the gathering to fill such a large space spoke volumes of how important it was for people to be there.
War memorials also proved to be powerful experiences for our 8th graders. While you can certainly read and remember a fact about the number of lives lost in a war, seeing the number of names listed on the wall and standing feet away from the relatives looking for a name helps bring those numbers into a human context. We, too, had multiple 8th graders look for relatives at different memorial sites and at Arlington Cemetery, but even those who didn’t seek a relative walked away with a sense of scope for the magnitude of these wars.
Near the end of the trip we visited the Holocaust Museum. Our 8th graders had already been provided exposure and some key background knowledge to help them in the processing of the experience that would await them. However, the photos, letters, personalized stories and artifacts provided a glimpse into this painful part of history. Many students who finished somewhat early also took the time to talk with an actual Holocaust survivor who had set up a table in the atrium of the museum to share his stories. The number of survivors is dwindling by the day, but hearing from someone who survived the Holocaust reminds us just how recently it really happened and that it is not a part of ancient history, despite the black and white photos that capture this time period (or how much we wish it to be so). The intensity and forced traffic flow of the museum does leave an indelible mark on a visitor. I felt equal parts solemn and shocked that the Holocaust could go on for so long.
Now that I’ve been on the trip, I can see why our students remember it well beyond their years at St. Anne’s. In fact, at a recent St. Anne’s alumni event, there was no shortage of stories and moments remembered, even amongst those who graduated well over a decade ago. Yes, there will be plenty of stories documenting the chocolate fountain at the Golden Corral, staying up to watch epic March Madness games, or even the souvenirs students picked up at any and all gift shops. However, having been on the trip, I am confident that our students will also take away with them a greater appreciation and connection to our history, therein setting them up to more readily take in the intellectual content that awaits them in their future studies of history.