I stood in the entrance of a large, circular room as the sunlight reflected off of its pearly white floors. Blinding light poured from the room, causing me to squint as I slowly walked forward. I had spent the previous hour in extremely dark rooms. Across the entrance where I stood was a flickering flame on the top of a smooth, black granite block. The epitaph upon the block read, “Here lies earth gathered from death camps, concentration camps, sites of mass execution, and ghettos in Nazi-occupied Europe, and from cemeteries of American soldiers who fought and died to defeat Nazi Germany.” The flame continued to flicker as I surveyed the room around me. Padded benches lined the circular perimeter of the room, allowing for a passerby to sit quietly in reflection. Most of these padded seats, however, were already taken. I searched the room for an empty seat and claimed it as my own. The other occupants in the room numbered more than sixty, yet the silence was deafening. I looked around the room, left to right, and examined the expressions of the other people. Their faces told of anguish and despair, of utter shock and disbelief, of complete sorrow and heartbreak; these were the faces of my students. Together, we sat in the Hall of Remembrance at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. and struggled to cope with the magnitude of emotions we were all feeling.
I sat cross-legged on the cement ground as I took in the beautiful environment. The area was open, only containing shiny benches, small pools of water, and a few trees. The Pentagon stood towering in the backdrop. I watched quietly as Powell students and staff walked around the Pentagon Memorial. Engraved on the edge of each bench was a name representing a victim in the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon. Below each bench were beautiful rectangular pools of water. Many of the students sat on the benches in groups of two or three, solemnly reflecting on the deadly event which they were too young to remember. I thought about the events that unfolded on 9/11/2001; I remember the day clearly. I was only a freshman in high school at the time, still too young to properly understand the magnitude of the what was happening. As memories flashed in my brain of the twin towers collapsing, one of my students walked up to a bench and slowly ran her hand across the engraving. As she read the name, she softly reached below and grazed the water with the tips of her fingers.
I stood across from the black wall as I read the engraving, “Freedom is not free.” My reflection stared back at me, along with the faces of about five students who were looking at the same quotation. I turned to my right and noticed a mass of our kids huddling near the flag pole. Our students encompassed an elderly man as he spoke underneath the flag at the Korean War Memorial. More than fifty 8th graders stood around him in silence as they soaked up every last word. The man stood in his military uniform, as he described some of the emotional hardships of the war. He spoke his precisely chosen words with passion; the students were hooked. He also talked to them about the importance of education, hard work, and living life without fear. He ended by saying, “A coward dies a thousand deaths…a hero only dies once.” As our group moved away from the Korean War Memorial, I noticed one boy lingering. It was one of Powell’s nicest young men, and also one of the toughest. He stood quietly with tears pouring down his face. I walked over to him and asked him if he was okay.
“It is just so many people,” he spat out in between sobs. I put my arm around him as he continued to cry. We slowly caught up to the rest of the group and marched forward to the World War II memorial. The boy’s statement about the sheer magnitude of death rang true as I thought of the the engraving; freedom is not Free.
Only an hour before, our group made the trek down the sidewalk at the Vietnam Memorial. It was early in the morning and the sun was poking through a layer of clouds. Most of the students moved in a mass from one end of the black wall to the other. However, there were several students who lingered slowly along the wall. I held up the rear of our group and watched as these students traced engraved names with their fingers. One of the most eerie aspects of the Vietnam Memorial Wall is that whoever is standing there can clearly see his/her own reflection. Flowers and other objects lined the bottom of the wall. At one point, I turned around and found one of our students sitting down while she searched for a specific name as the Washington Monument rose in the background; it was a beautiful scene.
I had never had the opportunity to visit Washington D.C. in the first 26 years of my life. Therefore, when the chance to be a teacher chaperon on our 8th grade trip presented itself, I did not hesitate. As a U.S. history/government teacher, it is almost shameful that I had never been to D.C. before. As we all met at Powell to catch a bus to the airport in the early morning hours on a Thursday, my heart raced with excitement…probably more excitement than most of our students. We made it to the airport and our group of 130 8th grade students and 12 chaperons left Denver for Washington D.C. At this point, the history nerd in me began to go crazy. We spent four days and three nights in the city, seeing as much as we could. Here is a list of the sites we were able to see and what we did (there are some great are pictures below):
*Tidal Basin – right in the middle of the Cherry Blossom Festival!
*Washington Monument, Jefferson Memorial, and The White House – all from a bit of a distance
*The Newseum (the old journalism major within went crazy here!)
*The Holocaust Memorial Museum
*The Capitol Building
*Library of Congress
*Supreme Court Building
*Old Town Alexandria – for ghost tours
*Iwo Jima Memorial
*Vietnam War Memorial
*Korean War Memorial
*World War II Memorial – I was able to call my grandfather from here, who is a WWII vet…pretty cool!
*Arlington National Cemetery – four of our students were given the prelidge of changing the reef at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
All of these places were brilliant for their own unique manners. My favorite part of the trip, however, was watching our students transform from a rowdy group of teenagers on the first night, to the students I described above. I will let the pictures do the talking. Here are some of my best (Click to enlarge and activate the slide show…seriously, click a picture!):