Jenkins Hill

For teachers who are poor, but like to travel, nothing is better than hosting student tours. Truth is these trips are a lot of fun. Really. The kids make it fun. I led a number of tours over the years and still carry wonderful memories of the historic sites, our numerous guides, the bus drivers, my students, and the bustling itineraries that delivered us everywhere.

Out of the classroom, and away from home, students encountered much of what we had covered in history class, up close. On one stop at the US Capitol a guide opened a small door off a corridor revealing a narrow, circular stairway. Bygone soot and some damage remained down that steep passage, evidence of the War of 1812, when invading Brits set fire to the building. Our docent elaborated. A redcoat on horseback had urged his horse up those cramped stairs, only to be shot by American defenders waiting at the top. That anecdote caused a bit of a stir, as we all absorbed the horror.

Peeking into the Old Senate chamber, (much smaller than today’s grand affair) prompted another story of another clash, from another era. In this original legislative hall Massachusetts Senator, Charles Sumner had suffered a severe beating at the hands of a furious South Carolina Congressman. At issue, the fiery debate over the spread of slavery.

Bus drivers sometimes got into act, and added a few gems of their own. Before leaving the Capitol, he grabbed the microphone and shared a story.

George Washington had been inaugurated as America’s first president in New York City. But a site for a permanent national capitol had been selected. And it was President Washington, himself who laid the first cornerstone for the structure on a rise called Jenkins Hill. Why, the driver asked, did Washington turn the first spade, and set that brick of sandstone? Of course we all thought the honor went to Washington as the President. Wrong.

The President had been asked to set the stone, because he was a stone mason.

Who’d a thought!

On the bus we loudly debriefed, the chatter sounding much like gossiping about Justin Bieber, or the Kardashians. The narrative may have been a century or two old, but still very much alive–resurrected by students in the Twenty-first Century.

There are many such stories of American school kids touching our collective past, and many adults who made that happen. Somehow we all came away better people. Perhaps we’re all reminded we are part of a much bigger picture, and we all fit somewhere within the frame.

On January 6, 2021, Americans across the nation watched domestic terrorists violated the inner sanctum of democracy. I wondered what thoughts crossed the minds of those same former students to witness this tarnishing of democratic majesty.

Not everyone can afford to send their kids on trips like these. I couldn’t. But understand this, every public school in the country teaches American History. The public must understand this story tells of a unique nation, and democracy grows fragile when the ignorance rules the times.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles are available on Kindle. Chumbley has written two historic plays, “Clay,” and “Wolf By The Ears.”

gailchumbley@gmail.com

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