You’ve got to be a little crazy to take a bunch of teenagers on a field trip – especially overnight and out of town.
But that’s what I did, and – yeah – guilty as charged.
For the second time in my more than 15-year career as a public school teacher, I volunteered along with a group of parents and other teachers to escort my classes of 8th graders to Washington, DC, and surrounding sights.
And I never regretted it. Not for a moment.
Not when Jason bombed the bathroom in the back of the bus after eating a burrito for lunch.
Not when Isaac gulped down dairy creamers for dessert and threw up all over himself.
Not when a trio of teenage girls accidentally locked themselves in their hotel room and we needed a crowbar to get them out.
But as I stood in Manassas, Virginia, looking at a statue of Stonewall Jackson, the edge of regret began to creep into my mind.
There he was perched on the horizon, ripped and bulging like an advertisement for weight gain powder.
“We call him the superman statue,” the park ranger said.
And as I stood amongst the confused looks of my western Pennsylvania teens, I felt a wave of cognitive dissonance wash over me like a slap in the face.
Stonewall Jackson, a lanky Confederate General whose horse was too small for him, here mythologized, enshrined and worshiped like a hero. Yet he was a traitor to our country.
They call him Stonewall because the union army couldn’t get through his battle lines. He was like a wall the North could not break through.
He was fighting to preserve human slavery. Who cares how well he fought or how great his tactics? He was on the losing side of history.
We shouldn’t be praising him. He should be forgotten, at best a footnote in a record that celebrates those fighting to overturn human bondage, not those battling to uphold it.
But the confusion didn’t start at the statue. It began before our tour bus even arrived at the national park.
I teach Language Arts, not history, but I had never heard of the battle of Manassas. I knew it was close to Bull Run, a nearby creek where the two Civil War battles of that name were fought.
It was only when the park ranger was showing us the sights (of which there weren’t many) that the truth became clear.
Even today more than 150 years since Lee surrendered to Grant at the Appomattox Court House, the two sides can’t agree on the names of the battles.
In the South, they name them after the nearest city or town. In the North, we name them after the nearest geologic landmark.
So even though this battle took place on a farm in northern Virginia, we still can’t agree even on what to call the confrontation – much less its import to our shared history.
Before we stepped out onto the battlefield, the park service treated us to a short documentary film about the site and its history – “Manassas: End of Innocence.”
The film was narrated by Richard Dreyfus. I marveled at hearing Mr. Holland nonchalantly inform us that this first battle of the Civil War marked the titular “end of innocence.”
I’m still not sure who suffered such an end. Was it the nation, as a whole, which had never before experienced such a bloody war among its own citizenry, pitting brother against brother? Was it the North who had not until this point realized the South would resist with shot and shell? Was it the South who had not yet tasted the bitterness of Northern aggression?
The latter seemed to be the narrator’s implication.
Dreyfus painted a scene of peaceful life on the farm shattered by the sneak attack of union soldiers.
THAT is what marked this “end of innocence.”
“Innocence!?” I thought.
These people were not innocent. They owned slaves. Mrs. Judith Carter Henry, the 85-year-old who refused to evacuate her farm and was killed in the fighting, owned another human being.
In my book, that disqualifies you from any kind of innocence.
And that’s what this whole war was essentially about. Should people be allowed to own other people?
The answer is an unequivocal – NO.
The fact that an entire segment of our population still drags its feet on that question has implications that reverberate through our history and up through our last Presidential election.
A few days before venturing to Manassas, my students and I toured Washington, DC. We stopped in front of the White House.
I’d been there before. It’s a popular place for protests of every kind. But never had I seen it so crowded with discontent.
Political critics had set up booths and tents. They even brought speakers to blast out music to accompany their protests. My favorite was the song “Master of the House” from Les Miserables booming from a booth with multicolored “F- Trump!” signs.
But as we took our picture in front of that iconic Presidential manor, itself, partially built by slaves, I couldn’t help noticing another kiosk across the way – one selling MAGA hats.
In fact, they were everywhere.
A few students even bought them – cheap red knockoff baseball caps with a slogan of dog whistle hatred emblazoned on the front.
Make America Great Again? Like when union troops couldn’t get passed Stonewall Jackson?
We hit many more famous sites.
We went to the Jefferson memorial and all I could think about was Sally Hemings. We went to the FDR memorial and all I could think about were the Japanese internment camps. We went to the Martin Luther King memorial and all I could think about was how the struggle continues.
We didn’t talk much about what we were seeing. We just raced through the experience of it – going from one to another – gotta’ get back on the bus in time to hit the next one.
We had a really good time together on that field trip. Me, included.
But we took a lot more home with us than souvenirs.
It wasn’t just sight seeing or a vacation from the normal school day.
We toured the historic scars of our nation.
Scars still red and ripe and bleeding.
Will they ever heal, I wondered.
Will our nation ever become whole, healthy and clean?
I suppose that depends on us.
Because the first step to healing them is recognizing that they’re still there.
Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!