Late last night, I returned from a four day trip to Washington D.C. that I took with one of my colleagues (my dear friend Jordan James, who was born to be a teacher) and fourteen truly amazing 8th grade students. It was a great honor to bring these budding citizens to visit our nation's capital. It was also an enormous amount of fun. Everything ran very smoothly and the fine folks who arranged our trip (School Tours of America) certainly knew their business.
It was a jam-packed trip. We visited Ford's Theater, where President Lincoln was shot, as well as the Petersen House across the street, to stand in the room where Lincoln passed away. We went to the National Archives, to see the original copies of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. We toured the Capitol Building and the Library of Congress. We went to the National Air and Space Museum and the National Museum of the American Indian. We took two excursions out of town to see the battlefield at Gettysburg and the home of George Washington at Mount Vernon. We hiked around the Mall to see the memorials to Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Martin Luther King. And we paid our respects to those who have fought and died for the country at the World War II Memorial, the Korean War Veterans Memorial, the Vietnam Memorial, the Air Force Memorial, the Pentagon Memorial, and, on our last day, Arlington National Cemetery.
People who are overly pessimistic and cynical regarding the rising generation would have found their preconceptions happily shattered by the behavior of our students. Without exception, they were polite, inquisitive, and filled with excitement about what they were seeing. They bombarded me and Ms. James, as well as our various tour guides, with insightful questions and seemed to drink in the learning all around them. They goofed off every now and then, but whenever the occasion called for it, they were deeply respectful and serious. It was truly an honor and a privilege to take these wonderful young men and young women on this trip. When we all said goodbye at the baggage claim of Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, it was heartwarming to hear them tell their parents what a wonderful time they had. Since then, Ms. James and I have received warm messages of thanks from their parents. We are already planning to take more students next year.
It was a fun trip, but that wasn't the important thing. For me, this trip was about far more than having an enjoyable time and seeing interesting stuff. As I told the students, it really was all about PIETAS.
It's a trick of teachers as old as time itself to use a word the students won't know so that they will ask you what it means, thus giving the teacher a chance to expound a bit. Pietas is a Latin term for which there isn't an exact English translation. It's the root of our word "piety", which means strong religious belief, and devotion to religion certainly is part of pietas. But for the Romans, it meant far more than that. Pietas might be described as the duty everyone has to be faithful and respectful towards their own families and, more generally, towards the foundations of their society. It was because of pietas that the Romans took such things as religious rituals, readings of omens, and ceremonies of state so seriously.
Pietas is everywhere in the buildings and monuments of Washington D.C. The FDR Memorial is entirely flat to reflect Roosevelt's status as the first president with a physical disability. The MLK Memorial is located halfway between the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials to symbolize Martin Luther King's synthesis of the ideas of the two presidents. The Rotunda of the Capitol Dome is covered with beautiful art depicting crucial moments in American history. The Freedom Wall in the World War II Memorial has a gold star for ever one hundred American lives lost in the global struggle against fascism; it contains just over four thousand stars. The statue of Rosa Parks donated by the state of Alabama to the National Statuary Hall in the Capitol Building pointedly depicts her seated rather than standing up. Although Ford's Theater remains an active center for stage productions today, the presidential box in which Lincoln was shot is never used and is as carefully preserved to its 1865 appearance as possible. All of this is pietas.
The simple existence of the battlefield at Gettysburg is a manifestation of American pietas. The land where the fate of the nation was decided in the summer of 1863 could, like the battlefields around Atlanta, been turned into residential areas, shopping centers, and golf courses. Instead, the nation made a collective decision to preserve the sacred ground as both a monument to the bravery of the men who fought there and to allow future generations to explore the battlefield in order to understand what happened there. The same applies to the preservation of George Washington's home at Mount Vernon, and, for that matter, Jefferson's home at Monticello, Madison's home at Montpelier, and other homes of great individuals of American history.
Two moments on this trip really stand out to me in terms of what I am talking about. At Mount Vernon, four of our students participated in a wreath-laying ceremony at George Washington's tomb. First, one of the girls read out the pledge of allegiance. Then two boys carefully raised and carried the wreath into the tomb itself, setting it beside the sarcophagus. Finally, a girl read a prayer written by George Washington, beseeching God to protect the United States and calling upon all citizens to love and respect one another for the common good. The four students who did this behaved impeccably and all described the experience as extremely moving.
The second took place on the last day of our trip. We visited Arlington National Cemetery, walking for miles among the thousands upon thousands of gravestones marking the final resting places of the men and women who fought to keep America free. We saw the eternal flame marking the grave of President John F. Kennedy, the mast of the USS Maine, and the markers for the astronauts who died on the space shuttles Challenger and Columbia. But what stayed with me more than anything was the site of the endless fields of grave markers, stretching away across the horizon, like the grain and corn fields of the Midwest. During our tour, we could occasionally hear three volley salutes being fired as part of funerals taking place while we were there.
But nothing at Arlington National Cemetery illustrated American pietas more than watching the Changing of the Guard of the Tomb of the Unknowns. I can't quite articulate what it is about the deceptively simple ceremony: an officer arrives, inspects the sentry arriving for duty, who then relieves the sentry who has been on duty beforehand. The perfection of their movements, the precision of their walking, the exactness of their uniform, were all orders of magnitude higher than they needed to be if the point was simply to keep people from vandalizing the tomb. Why? Because it's not just about guarding the tomb; it's about showing the highest level of respect for the men and women who died defending our country. The poignancy of the ceremony is a statement to those brave heroes: we thank you, we honor you, and we will never forget you.
My students were standing in the sun on an oppressively hot and humid day while we watched the ceremony, yet I heard not a word of complaint from any of them. Some of them described the ceremony as the most incredible thing they had ever seen. During the whole time we were in Arlington National Cemetery, as when we visited the memorials to leaders of the past or the fallen heroes of past wars, all of our students displayed the deepest respect. Ms. James and I were more proud of them than words can express.
Sadly, not everyone we encountered during our trip behaved in the same manner. Another student group was on the grounds of Arlington that day and acted atrociously, tapping away on their smart phones during the Changing of the Guard and competing to see who could successfully flip bottles up onto the marble benches of the Memorial Amphitheater. I recall a foul-mouthed twentysomething loudly telling a profanity-laced joke amidst the crowd at the Martin Luther King Memorial. Obviously, there were plenty of people who did not appreciate what these historical sites and memorials truly represent. I was inclined to be a bit more forgiving at the Smithsonian, which isn't hallowed ground, but even there I was dismayed at how many people preferred to be goofing off or playing with their ubiquitous smart phones rather than exploring the fascinating exhibits that surrounded them.
Clearly, not everybody senses the need to maintain a sense of pietas. I think of all the people who think that Veterans Day and Memorial Day are the same thing or the adult men who are unaware that they are supposed to remove their hats during the singing of the national anthem. I think of the businesses that neglect to take care of the American flags that fly over their establishments, until they are gradually reduced to faded rags. I think of those people who don't know the name of their own representatives in Congress or who shirk their civic duty by failing to show up at the polls on Election Day. I think of all the people who are reading celebrity gossip magazines when they could be reading the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, and especially all the teenage boys who go home to play computer games for hours on end when they should be reading books.
The problems facing our country today have little to do with to do with how many people are conservatives or liberals. They have little to do with which party controls the House of Representatives, the Senate, or even the White House. I think that our problems stem from a lack of respect, or even understanding, of what the United States of America is supposed to be about. They stem from a lack of pietas.
It's easy to become disillusioned about the state of things in the United States today. I am probably more guilty of this than the average person. Yet when I look back on the last few days I have spent in our nation's capital with these fourteen amazing young men and young women, I find myself reinvigorated and renewed. To me, this experience underscores for me my responsibility as a teacher of American to nurture and mentor the leaders of tomorrow. These kids have pietas. And if they had it, others can have it, too.
America needs champions. It needs heroes. I hope that I have played at least a small part in encouraging some young people to step up and become the kind of citizens our country so desperately needs. And if I get the chance, I hope to do so again in the future.