Saturday, July 20, 2013

Gettysburg - An Address for All Time

Gettysburg National Battlefield Park is a holy place. How could you stand on ground where more than 150,000 fought, more than 30,000 were wounded and at least 7,000 people died in three days without appreciating the level of their suffering.

I have been to Gettysburg four times now. It is one of my most favorite places to visit. There’s a spirit there. Solemn. Exhausting. Overwhelming. Shocking. And yet, peaceful.
Today, the Civil War Trust Teacher Institute brought me to the battlefield once again. This time with an incredible guide and people who hungered for more information…teachers.

After spending more than six hours out in the hot sun, viewing hills and ridges, imagining smoke filled fields and acres of the dead and dying--including hiding in our bus from a torrential downpour while discussing Pickett’s Charge--we found ourselves in the cemetery, drippy and dampy learning of one of Lincoln’s greatest moments.
“Anyone know this?” asked the guide.

“I do,” I answered confidently.
“I’m going to call on you in a moment.”

Sudden moments of performance anxiety. I know, I know these words. Can I say them? And say them in a way that they mean to me.
I stopped listening and started thinking.
“Okay,” he said.
I folded my umbrella. Slid my hand into my pocket for comfort and took a slow, calming breath.
“Fourscore and seven years ago…”
The words flowed with a comfort that comes from teaching it to more than eight hundred students and having known it for what seems now, nearly my whole life (I learned in fifth grade.)

“Now we are engaged in a Great Civil War, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.”
Early this month was the 150th anniversary of this battle. Our nation still evolving. Still struggling.
“We have come to dedication a portion of that field as a final resting place…” (Only the Union soldiers, of course) “…for those who here gave their lives…”
My voice broke. Tears blurred my eyes for those “brave men living and dead who struggled here that that nation might live.”

My heart jumped to my nephew—in Afghanistan for the second time and his comrades who are fighting the unpopular battle that freedom might live.
I paused and cleared my throat.
“We cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men living and down who struggled here have consecrated far above our poor power to add or detract.”
This was the feeling I’d carried all day. Them. Not me. Them not me. Not the hundreds of thousands of visitors.

“The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.”
And yet, I stood remembering exactly what he said and only just scratching the surface of what they did.

“It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here thus far so nobly advanced.”
I stood surrounded by teachers. Of different states, different backgrounds, colors, religions. And I realized that we…the educators of our children have picked up those battle colors fluttered from the hands of our honored dead and we must continue on in that unfinished work. To bring peace. To end hatred. To find and embrace equality for our students so that, “the government, of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth.”


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