“Lincoln Monument: Washington” by Langston Hughes
Let’s go see Old Abe
Sitting in the marble and the moonlight,
Sitting lonely in the marble and the moonlight,
Quiet for ten thousand centuries, old Abe.
Quiet for a million, million years.
And yet a voice forever
We ended a long day by going to see a couple of the monuments. It was cold, and not everyone got out of the bus, which made it even more special in some ways, this unforced experience. I walked up and paid my respects.
When you work in a school, the key word to remember is flexibility. This goes double for field trips, and, as I learned last week, triple—or possibly more–for overnight field trips. I went with a group of 8th grade students to Washington, DC for three days. Don’t feel bad for me. I volunteered. I will admit that by the end of the trip, it was basically an out-of-body experience for this introvert.
I had quite a time with my students as we walked (and walked and walked) our way through the nation’s capital. I went with a group through the Holocaust museum and my heart was bursting as I listened to their questions and saw them making connections. I watched as they conducted themselves with great composure in the Georgetown University dining hall. I teared up to see their excitement at standing in the place where Martin Luther King, Jr. stood as he spoke at the March on Washington.
My students are teenagers, loud and sweet and belligerent and funny and inquisitive. They complain and they have impeccable comedic timing. Sometimes I wonder if they have any kind of filter at all, if any question is off-limits to them. I look at them and I see how interesting and infuriating they can be.
Those are not the things that strangers see. I watched shop owners get nervous when my students approached. I saw other tourists give them a side-eye and move away. At the Capitol building, a woman came up to me and said, “It’s really good what you are doing.”
I would like to believe that these things I saw and heard were simply the result of middle schoolers being kind of terrifying in general, but in my heart I know that the responses were about race. My students know it, too, and they made jokes about it. I laughed with them, but what I was feeling inside was much more like despair. The woman who spoke to me believed that we were bonded because we are both white. Even worse, she believed that I deserved some kind of accolades for simply doing my job. Our culture buys into that story, the one about the noble white teacher who comes in and helps the poor kids who need it. But the truth is that every school has its challenges, and my students are people, not objects of pity.
Sure, they make more noise than I wish they would (especially after being with them for three solid days), and it’s true that they laugh sometimes when they are confused by something. I get frustrated sometimes with their complete inability to retain the directions I just gave them or to do anything at all at anything other than the slowest possible speed. But I also know that they are often operating out of a different set of experiences. When I give them the chance to impress me, when I make my expectations clear, they usually rise to the occasion. Not always, no. But more often than not.
When we got out at the MLK monument, a student ran past me and her words drifted back: “This is the most fun I have ever had.” I paid tribute there, too, for stones of hope and rivers of justice. I wish that I was able to explain this to everyone who looked at us like, “What is she doing with them?” Instead, I try to rest in the confidence that my students can speak for themselves.