School Field Trip Turns Into a Tour of Our Nation’s Unhealed Scars

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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.

 
So what?

 

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!

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Dear White Supremacists: There Will Be No Race War

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This one goes out to all the white boys.

 

No.

 

Not ALL the white boys.

 

Just the ones who think being “white” and being a “boy” means the world owes them something.

 

Cause I’m white, too, and I know it doesn’t make me any better than anyone else.

 

But not you.

 

You think your lack of pigmentation is a special sign of your supremacy. As if being pale was synonymous for God’s chosen.

 

Well let me tell you something, white boy. God didn’t choose you. You did.

 

What you take for superiority is just a misguided attempt at self-esteem.

 

I’m a snowflake? YOU’RE the snowflake. Same color. Same consistency. In the first warm breeze, you’ll melt.

 

I’m talking to YOU, white boy. All of you.

 

All those melanin-starved faces wearing matching eggshell t-shirts and fat-ass khakis.

 

All those brave, young men holding Tiki torches and an inflated sense of self worth.

 

All the protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, so fearless they can spray mace on those they disagree with, so bold they can throw punches so long as they know the police won’t hold them accountable, so courageous they can drive a car into unarmed counter-protestors, so brave that they can’t even call themselves what they are: Nazis, the Klan, white supremacists.

 

You hide behind “Alt Right” as if the rest of us can’t figure out who you really are.

 

Surprise! We see you!

 

We see your twisted lips, scrunched eyes and flaring nostrils. Your hood-starved heads and sweat-gelled haircuts. Your hate warped faces spouting reheated leftovers from WWII.

 

My grandparents fought people like you.

 

They dressed in army green and hopped the ocean to pound people like you into the ground.

 

They took your goose-stepping forebears and blasted them into bits. They buried your intellectual precursors under the ashes of their eternal Reich.

 

And for my grandfathers’ sacrifice, I rarely had to deal with people like you, myself. Not outright.

 

It’s not that people like you didn’t exist. Your attitudes and beliefs still percolated just beneath the surface of so many frustrated white boys.

 

The difference was that they were too smart to actually give voice to the darkness in their hearts.

 

It didn’t stop them from acting on it. They just wouldn’t admit why.

 

Segregation, red lining, broken windows policing, and a plethora of others. It was all polite, all deniable, all just the colorblind way we do things around here.

 

But that doesn’t really work anymore, does it?

 

Times are changing.

 

The face of America is changing. And it’s increasingly brown.

 

It’s got curly hair and unexpected features. It’s fed by different foods and nourished by different beliefs and customs. And it’s often called by a name that doesn’t derive from Europe.

 

People are starting to speak up. They’re starting to call you out.

 

And you don’t like it.

 

More than that you’re scared. Terrified.

 

It’s all going to end. The lie you told yourself about being special.

 

So you huddle together with others just like you, shivering and crying and blowing snot onto each others shoulders pretending that it’s a rally for white pride. It’s really just the world’s biggest pity party for boys too scared to be men and own up.

 

You’re brave when you’re in numbers, aren’t you? With numbers or with a gun.

 

Then you can say whatever you want. You can pretend whatever racial fantasy will protect your fragile little egos.

 

You’ll whine and boast and imagine you’re winning some kind of war for survival. But we know what you’re really doing.

 

You’re on your knees. You’re begging for a confrontation.

 

You’ll do anything to provoke it.

 

It’s your only hope.

 

Push them. Prod them. Insult them until they fight.

 

Bring them down to your level.

 

Prove your moral superiority by stoking a race war.

 

Because you can battle human bodies, but you can’t stop ideas.

 

You can’t triumph over equality, empathy and love.

 

You can’t stop the tick of time. You can just hope to reset the clock.

 

Well, I’ve got bad news for you.

 

There will be no race war.

 

Not now. Not ever.

 

Oh, there may be fighting.

 

You’ll try to make it happen. But it won’t be white vs. black.

 

It won’t be race vs. race.

 

It will be your minority of cowards and fools vs. the majority of the rest of us.

 

Do you really think people like me will fight on your side?

 

Do you think I’ll stand by you just because the shade of my epidermis matches yours?

 

Hell No!

 

I’ll fight with my black brothers and sisters if it comes to it.

 

I’ll fight on the side of equality, fairness and love.

 

I’ll do like my grandfathers and smash you into the ground. We all will.

 

But I’d rather not fight at all.

 

There need be no violence.

 

And there won’t be.

 

Unless you force it.

 

You see, you can’t make a race war happen.

 

All you can do is unite the rest of us against you.