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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Bending Toward Justice: BATS Congress and the Fight Against Corporate Education Reform Taking Back the Power of Teachers

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(NOTE: This article was written by Yohuru Williams and Steven Singer)

Be the change that you wish to see in the world.—Mahatma Gandhi

Nearly a year ago today, I joined an inspiring band of intrepid activists who made their way to the nation’s capital to protest the impact of high stakes testing and corporate education reform. We arrived with the genuine hope that a demonstration at the Department of Education might encourage a national discussion about what many have rightfully identified as the destruction of public education.

After a long day of speeches and activities, a representative from the Department came out and asked for a meeting. After being ushered through security, a small contingent of protesters and I travelled upstairs where we were hustled into a small conference room. After a few minutes, Secretary Arne Duncan joined us. He stayed for only a few minutes, sometimes listening, but mostly politely but firmly pushing back and evading our grievances. It was clear that we had come to the wrong place.

After he departed, Arne’s staff pressed us for solutions. I suggested a National Teacher Congress that would allow real teachers, from across the nation, and from all backgrounds and districts, to convene in Washington to earnestly discuss and explore solutions. Arne’s aides perked up. “What a fantastic idea,” one his staffers chimed in. In abstract it was, but as we debated it in the weeks following the protest it was clear that we needed something stronger. We felt acknowledged for sure, but certainly not heard. For all the power projected on him, Arne is a functionary and we determined that we needed to go after the persons and entities on whose behalf he functioned.

In the months that followed my idea of a Teachers Congress morphed into a week of lobbying to educate elected officials about the detrimental impact of corporate education exacerbated by rampant racism and poverty. The idea of a National Badass Teachers Association (BATs) Congress was born.

On Saturday, July 24, 2015 I reprised my role as keynote speaker as part of that Congress, but the real action had already taken place as my fellow BAT and edu-blogger Steven Singer of Pennsylvania chronicles below. The BATs returned to DC, not to revisit history but to continue our mission of creating real opportunity and equity in the nation’s schools. For even as we all firmly believe, as the Reverend Dr. King once expressed that the arc of the universe bends towards justice, we also acknowledge that sometimes you have to push at its base to help it’s curvature along. —Yohuru Williams

Steven Singer:

We came to Washington, D.C., in ones, twos and threes.

We came by the carload. On the train. In transcontinental flights. Even walked.

No mass uprising. No angry rhetoric. No fists shaking.

No corporate funding. No thick rolls of bills. Just whatever jingling change we could spare for travel, room and board.

We occupied the Capitol stuffed overcapacity in hotel rooms, sometimes sleeping on the floor or even in the hall.

Not ideologues, not Democrats, not Republicans – just parents, teachers, students, people.

Who are we? We are the Badass Teachers Association. And we came to be heard.

Last year we stood outside the U.S. Department of Education to air our grievances. We spoke to those walls, we spoke to each other and the open air. We spoke with such volume, the doors opened and we were invited inside.

And in the presence of The Powerful, we didn’t stumble, we didn’t lose our courage, we told the truth to their disbelieving faces.

Our public schools are not failing. YOU are failing our public schools.

Your policies are poisonous. Your testing is treasonous. Your facts are fallacious. Your designs are dangerous. Your ideas imperious. Your lectures libelous. Your measures malicious. Your networks nefarious. Your rigor ridiculous. Your standards suspicious.

Secretary Duncan, next year you should convene a congress of teachers. They would tell you what needs to be done.

 

And we meant it.

We didn’t wait for permission. We didn’t wait for an invitation. We gathered our own power, gathered our selves and this year became the Badass Teachers Congress.

For two days we marched up Capitol Hill and into the halls of the House and Senate. We made appointments months in advance to sit down with our legislators, and if they wouldn’t meet with us, we sat down with their aides, and if they wouldn’t commit to a meeting, we showed up anyway.

We told them the truth. Right to their faces if they were brave enough to face us.

We didn’t wait for education policy to be directed by education experts. We presented our expertise, offered it freely, shook hands, smiled and looked them right in the eye.

But we didn’t stop there. Telling Congress is one thing. We BECAME a Congress.

We drew on our own first hand experiences of the failure of national education policy. We drew on research, peer-reviewed studies, the fruits of universities and colleges – real, unmanipulated data.

And we came up with resolutions.

We acknowledged that our labor unions sometimes fail to live up to their promise. But we didn’t throw them away. We devised ways to strengthen them, to increase their power to empower and make them more like us.

We shared our fear of being the lone dissenting voice and planned ways to overcome ourselves and speak up for our children and communities even if our voices shake.

We acknowledged our national history of racism, sexism, and prejudice. And we didn’t allow our many different shades of skin to provide offense, we didn’t allow our various cultures, ethnicities, religions and sexualities to become a burden. We drew on our differences as a strength and committed ourselves to acknowledging the ways we have been disenfranchised. We decided on a path of love and acceptance even if that path might take us to places that make us uncomfortable, we’d go there together.

We resolved to continue protecting teachers from toxic work environments that far too often become abusive. Too many of our colleagues have taken their own lives due to the toll of this job. We are the last line of defense between children and people who would sooner sell their futures for a few pieces of silver. And finally the problem is being recognized and steps are being taken – slowly – to help.

In short, we did what The Powerful least expected or wanted. We held each other up. We recognized our own power and vision. We organized, made plans and set the course for our future.

In the weeks that follow, more details will emerge. We’re still examining the incredible input, ideas and information. So much happened, it’s hard for any one person to encapsulate it all.

But of this you can be sure.

We are the Badass Teachers Association.

We are not waiting to be invited anywhere. We are not asking permission. We are taking control of our own destinies.

And we will be back.


 About the Authors:

Yohuru Williams is an author, Professor of History and Black Studies, and education activist. Steven Singer is a husband, father, teacher, and blogger, education advocate. Both are members of the Badass Teachers Association.

williams-singerNOTE: This article also was published in the LA Progressive.