So Simple, So Basic

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Social media platforms I’ve read lately insist  public schools no longer teach this particular lesson or that particular subject. And since I was a career history teacher, I want folks to understand that that isn’t necessarily the whole story. If your kids aren’t getting what you believe is important, the problem doesn’t lie in the public classroom. But before I delve into the obstacles, I’d like to describe a slice of my history course.

For sophomores we began the year with the Age of Discovery. As part of this unit students mapped various Native Cultures, placing the Nootka in the Pacific Northwest, and the Seminole in the Florida peninsula. Southwestern natives lived in the desert, while the Onondaga hunted the forests of the Eastern Woodlands. From that beginning we shifted study to Europe, with the end of the Middle Ages. In the new emerging era, Columbus sailed to the Bahamas, and changed the world forever. By the end of the first semester, in December, America had defeated the British in the Revolutionary War, and a new government waited to take shape until the second semester began in January.

We covered it all. And did the same for the rest of the material, closing the school year with the Confederate defeat at Appomattox Courthouse, and the trials of Reconstruction. And that was only the sophomore course.

The story of America grows longer everyday, and that’s a good thing. It means we’re still here to record the narrative.

The drawbacks this truth presents? Curriculum writers, in the interest of limited time, have had to decide what information stays and what is cut. For example, pre-Columbian America, described above, was jettisoned in order to add events that followed the Civil War. In short, where we once studied Native Americans in depth, we now focus on the post-Civil War Native genocide. What a message this decisions has leveled on our students!

When I was hired in the 1980’s our school district had one high school. Today there are five traditional secondary schools, and also a scattering of smaller alternatives. The district didn’t just grow, it exploded. To cope with this massive influx of students, administrators reworked our teaching schedule into what is called a 4X4 block. Under this more economical system, teachers were assigned 25% more students and lost 25% of instruction time. We became even more restricted in what we could reasonably cover in the history curriculum. (I called it drive-by history.)

On the heels of this massive overcrowding, came the legal mandates established by No Child Left Behind. Students were now required to take benchmark tests measuring what they had learned up to that grade level. Adult proctors would pull random kids out of class, typically in the middle of a lesson, often leaving only one or two students remaining in their desks. These exams ate up two weeks during the first semester, and another two weeks in the Spring.

If that wasn’t enough, politicians, and district leaders began to publicly demonstrate a great deal of favoritism toward the hard sciences, especially in computer technology. So considering the addition of new historic events, overcrowded classrooms, tighter schedules, and mandatory exams, the last thing history education needed was an inherent bias toward the hard sciences.

Public education was born in Colonial New England to promote communal literacy. Later, Thomas Jefferson, insisted education was the vital foundation for the longevity of our Republic. Immigrant children attended public schools to learn how to be Americans, and first generation sons and daughters relished the opportunity to assimilate. In short, enlightened citizenship has been the aim of public education, especially in American history courses. So basic, so simple.

If indeed, history classes provide the metaphoric glue that holds our nation together, we are all in big trouble. And the threats come from many sides. When our public schools are no longer a priority, open to all, we are essentially smothering our shared past.

Teachers cannot manufacture more time, nor meet individual needs in overcrowded classrooms. And both of these factors are essential for a subject that is struggling to teach Americans about America.

As Napoleon lay dying in 1821, he confessed his own power hungry mistakes, when he  whispered, “They expected me to be another (George) Washington.” Bonaparte understood the powerful lessons of America’s story.

 

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two volume memoir, River of January and River of January: Figure Eight. Both available at http://www.river-of-january.com and at Amazon.com

That Kid in Class

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This piece comes from a former student, Second Lieutenant. Cyrus Cappo, USA, West Point Class of 2017.
It is your right to be outraged, or offended, or annoyed by the anthem protests going on around the country today. And in these days of unprecedented access to the megaphone of social media it is your privilege to voice that outrage to estranged family members and friends from high school and coworkers and anyone else you happen to be Facebook friends with.
“It shows disrespect to the troops!” you might say through gritted teeth while furiously pounding on keys, your heart rate steadily increasing to unsafe levels about men who play sports silently and peacefully protesting their race’s treatment as second-class citizens and a President who reserves more fury for them than actual white supremacists and anti-semites. It would be your right to take such a bold and well-thought out stance, maybe even adding that this “the snowflakes have gone too far, I can’t even be safe from the tyranny of this PC culture watching a football game!”
But maybe, you my hypothetical example, could consider that standing for a flag that means many different things to many people isn’t actually what it takes to support your troops. And shockingly, neither is decorating for the Fourth of July, or sporting neat little patriotic bumper stickers and t-shirts, or even shaking a soldier’s hand to thank him or her for their service.
Bear with me, because I know this is a bit of a stretch, but just maybe supporting the troops means voting for politicians who don’t support never-ending wars without any clear objective, and that actually increase the rate of radicalization and terrorism at the low low cost of over 7000 American lives and the even lower cost of millions of middle eastern civilian lives, while simultaneously destabilizing multiple countries that allow for organizations like ISIS to gain power and a dictator like Assad to gas his own populace. That would be something I could be convinced to be outraged about. Maybe you could donate some of your time and money to organizations that are trying to prevent 22 veterans a day from killing themselves due to PTSD and the complete glut of financial and medical support that veterans receive, or if you own a business, you could even go out of your way to hire a veteran so they don’t become homeless as a thanks for their years of service. Maybe you could write a letter to a soldier who is deployed in the name of protecting, um, something something freedom, or send him or her a care package to make a day that could be their last a little less bleak.
But yikes, that would be hard and inconvenient and require some introspection and research and pure, unadulterated thought, and who has time for that, am I right? Much easier to voice outrage about football players exercising their right to protest, and using their platform of privilege to try and make the country a little bit more equal for all of us. Thank you for your tremendous sacrifice of not watching football this weekend, our country is better for it. Don’t forget to put the flag up and plan your cookout for Veterans Day, I look forward to seeing you the next time you shake my hand to thank me for my service.
Feel free to do any proofreading, this was written in bed and out of total frustration haha, I’m glad you liked it.
Cheers,
Cyrus

The Pitch

Long rows of rectangular tables, draped and decorated, filled the hall. Cellophane covered baskets, revealing festive gifts sat inches apart, attracting hopeful bids from the browsers wandering about the silent auction. Attendees seemed to understand the drill, strolling from basket to basket, pen in hand, increasing the previous bid. And the purpose behind this auction? The IEA Children’s Fund; a statewide account to help Idaho kids with food, clothing, supplies, shoes, and any other need disadvantaged students face.

I squeezed in between colorful, refugee-sewn bags and wallets, and a boxed WiFi yoga program, complete with a mat and ready-to-use internet software. My books sat displayed below eye level, requiring some adjustments to attract possible buyers.

Both “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight” are rich with archival images. However, space limitations left the usual eye catchers tucked in a satchel, under my chair. Though dismayed at first, I remembered that the books have photo galleries inside, and my tactic instantly shifted. “Are you a reader?” I begin. And what’s cool about teachers is that 99.9% told me ‘yes.’ (Of course they are, we teachers are the champions of literacy.) Then I whipped out the photos in book one.

I begin . . . “River of January is a true story, a memoir, that I have written in a novelized style. Here is my main charter, a pilot, who won an air race in 1933. Here he is receiving the winning trophy from actress Helen Hayes at the premier of her newest movie, Night Flight co-starring Clark Gable.” (The listener looks mildly interested. I go on.)

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The girl in the middle, laughing, was his girlfriend, she was a pilot too. On the left is Amelia Earhart, the president of the female flying group called The 99’s.”  (I hear an audible WOW. We’re getting somewhere.)

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“And this girl is the other main character, and she was a show girl, dancer, and actress. The picture is a clip from a 1931 movie she appeared in called Women of All Nations. Not much of a film, but she had a closeup. Oh, that’s Bela Lugosi in the turban.” (Now I hear a ‘that’s amazing.’)

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“Yeah,” I agree. “And it’s only the first book. In book two, he ships out to the Pacific, and she becomes a professional ice skater in a Sonja Henie Ice Show.”

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(I reach for the second book, “Figure Eight.”). Here he is with the head of Eastern Airlines, Captain Eddie Rickenbacker. You know, the WWI flying ace?” Now they want to know the price, and would I take a debit card?

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“Would you like me to sign the books?” They would. And I thank the purchaser, and ask for feedback on Amazon.

What is nice is that all teachers share an innate sense of wonder. My natural fascination with the story easily connected to like-minded listeners among the professional educators circling that hall.

And that’s my pitch. I let the two main characters sell the memoir because they were nothing short of amazing.

Plus I , too, happily made a donation for each book sold to the IEA Children’s Fund.

 

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both books are available at www.river-of-january.com, or on Amazon.

 

 

 

Words of Honor

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Union General, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, in a 1901 interview for a Boston newspaper, shared his recollections of the Confederate Army’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia.  Tasked by General Ulysses S. Grant with the formal 1865 surrender of Rebel arms and military gear, Chamberlain described that April day in remarkably vivid detail, despite the passage of over 30 years.

“At a distance of possibly twelve feet from our line, the Confederates halted and turned face towards us. Their lines were formed with the greatest care, with every officer in his appointed position, and thereupon began the formality of surrender.

“Bayonets were affixed to muskets, arms stacked, and cartridge boxes unslung and hung upon the stacks. Then, slowly and with a reluctance that was appealingly pathetic, the torn and tattered battleflags were either leaned against the stacks or laid upon the ground. The emotion of the conquered soldiery was really sad to witness. Some of the men who had carried and followed those ragged standards through the four long years of strife, rushed, regardless of all discipline, from the ranks, bent about their old flags, and pressed them to their lips with burning tears.

“And it can well be imagined, too, that there was no lack of emotion on our side, but the Union men were held steady in their lines, without the least show of demonstration by word or by motion. There was, though, a twitching of the muscles of their faces, and, be it said, their battle-bronzed cheeks were not altogether dry. Our men felt the import of the occasion, and realized fully how they would have been affected if defeat and surrender had been their lot after such a fearful struggle.
. . . “But, as I was saying, every token of armed hostility having been laid aside, and the men having given their words of honor that they would never serve again against the flag, they were free to go whither they would and as best they could. In the meantime our army had been supplying them with rations. On the next morning, however, the morning of the 13th, we could see the men, singly or in squads, making their way slowly into the distance, in whichever direction was nearest home, and by nightfall we were left there at Appomattox Courthouse lonesome and alone.”

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, River of January and River of January: Figure Eight. Also available on Amazon.com

A History Teacher on 911

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I cannot recall the words I used to soothe my juniors on that horrible day. However, the soul-deep pain remains remarkably sharp in my emotional memory.

Vaguely I can see my son, a senior at the same high school, enter my classroom to check on his mom, the American History teacher. Seeing his face, I wanted to go to pieces.

It was later, in the local newspaper, that I discovered not only the words I shared with my students but the transforming pain they endured watching their country attacked.

(For the writer’s privacy I’ve deleted their identity)

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And He Stood Up

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Asked by my old high school, I had the privilege of speaking to young people on the eve of Veterans Day. My remarks appear below.

Thank You for inviting me today—It’s good to be back at Eagle High.

On October 23rd, a few weeks ago, U.S. Master Sergeant Joshua Wheeler of Oklahoma was fatally wounded in a rescue mission freeing Isis-held hostages in Iraq. He died after rushing into a firefight to support the allied Kurdish soldiers he had trained and advised. Secretary of Defense, Asthon Carter, later described the chaotic events that cost this soldier’s his life.

“As the compound was being stormed, the plan was not for U.S. … forces to enter the compound or be involved in the firefight. However, when a firefight ensued, this American did what I’m very proud that Americans do in that situation . . . he ran to the sound of the guns and he stood up. All the indications are that it was his actions and that of one of his teammates that protected those who were involved in breaching the compound and made the mission a success.”

The death of Master Sergeant Wheeler spared the lives of 70 Isis prisoners scheduled for mass execution the following morning.

Wheeler ran to the sound of the guns. Now I can’t speak for our service men and women, and when I was asked to give this talk, I had to confer with those who have made that solemn commitment. My questions were misleadingly simple . . . why did you choose a military career? What persuaded you to risk yourself for potentially dangerous service?
I wanted to try and understand that burning force of purpose, of unquestioned focus to duty, detach from self preservation for the welfare of others. I wondered how personal fear could be swallowed when, as Secretary Carter explained, “Wheeler involved himself in the firefight.” Where does this nobility of character draw from? Where do these individuals come from—the few that can’t sit on the sideline when duty calls them from their homes?

The answer, strikingly enough, is right here, in this auditorium. Home. Here. No, not someone else from somewhere else. Here. And people, that is where America has always found It’s defenders, from every town and city.

A number of Eagle students have, from many graduating classes, chosen the disciplined military life. Once wiggly kids who, warming the same seats you now occupy, resisting, as you most surely are, the urge to check your cell phones, daydream about the newest version of Halo, or wonder if Bogus Basin ski hill will open before Thanksgiving. They were kids just like you.
Now I don’t pretend to know the name of every Eagle Mustang who has volunteered for service, but I’d like to mention a few.

After earning a college degree as a civilian, 2004 EHS graduate Captain Greg Benjamin was commissioned an Infantry Officer, sending him north to Ft. Wainwright in Fairbanks, Alaska. From this first posting, Greg has served, so far, two Central Asian tours, first in southern, then in eastern Afghanistan. He wants you to know that he loves the training opportunities he’s experienced so far–Ranger School, Airborne, and Air Assault Schools, and leadership training. When I asked Greg, now married with small children why he chose to place himself in harm’s way, he replied, “I want to take the fight to our country’s enemies, leading America’s finest young men and women in combat and training. And change the lives of people in some of the worst places on the planet.”

Captain Joe Peterson, EHS class of 2005, made his decision after high school too. “I had a number of teammates from Eagle’s Lacrosse team one year ahead of me go to a service academy . . . and this kicked-off my thought process in a serious manner. I’d always held the belief of service, but this made the choice tangible for me . . . I received an invitation to visit the University of San Francisco and their ROTC department. I decided to accept.” Joey was posted in installations ranging from Fort Sill, Oklahoma, to Ft. Lewis, Washington, across the Pacific to South Korea, and Central Asia as a platoon leader in Kandahar, Afghanistan overseeing all aircraft and artillery surrounding that area. Reflecting for this talk Joe added, “It was trying at times, but . . . I am proud of my service and it added a value and perspective to my life . . . it has opened doors that are unbelievable.”

Second year West Point Cadet, Colt Sterk described his heartfelt desire to be part of something he termed, “Larger than myself.” Cadet Sterk, EHS class of 2013 explained, “When I was 14 I was given the honor of presenting a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, (in Arlington Cemetery). The nameless soldier in that tomb willingly lay down his life for me, a stranger. I felt a debt of gratitude. Since then I’ve always felt I was called to serve. A senior cadet told me when I was a freshman, ‘Colt in everything you do leave a footprint.’ By that he meant make an impact even if it’s only a little bit. Is it hard? Absolutely. But I know it’s where I’m meant to be.” Colton wants you to know that he visited Israel last summer for ten days studying the Israeli Palestinian conflict, and the implications in that region for the United States, and for the US Army. This semester Colt is attending the US Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado on cadet exchange—jumping out of airplanes, and on gliding tactics. He just earned his jump wings after completing the requisite five jumps.

Colby Hyde, EHS Class, 2010 shared a different response. He said, “We are fortunate in this country that military service is not an obligation. We are unfortunate, however, in that we do not often appreciate the sacrifice of those who volunteer on our behalf. Eventually I realized that I didn’t want to be comfortable. Comfort leads to boredom and ignorance, I thought, and life is too short to accept either of those. When someone suggested applying to West Point, I could not resist. I applied, was accepted, and have never left. My life now is not comfortable by any means, and I know the hardships are yet to come. That said, I am more satisfied with my life than I ever was before. I have taken part in New York City memorials for fallen 9/11 responders, and traveled with active duty units to the deserts of Death Valley to help them prepare for combat in Afghanistan. I have traveled across Southern China, can speak, read, and write Mandarin Chinese.

I am thankful for everyone who has served me along the way, from my parents to my teachers, and I only hope I can return the favor in the years to come.” At the end of his letter, Colby added, “I have not done anything for our country yet, but I promise I will. Cadet Colby Hyde graduates from the Military Academy at West Point in 2016.

Tomorrow is Veterans Day. Now I am not here to tell anyone to enlist in military service. Truly, the life of a soldier, marine, or sailor isn’t suited for everybody. At this point in your life you should be dreaming about double diamond ski runs, video games, and Harry Potter marathons with your best friends. And also, to be frank with you, that depth of courage and commitment to duty blooms in the hearts of only an extraordinary few.

What I do want you to reflect upon when you exit this auditorium is that Captain Greg Benjamin, Captain Joey Peterson, Second year Cadet, Colton Sterk, and third year Cadet, Colby Hyde, and many, many other Eagle High School alum have solemnly sworn to protect you. And consider as well, that this oath assures these few will run toward the sound of danger–for us—just as Master Sergeant Josh Wheeler of Oklahoma.

We have remained the land of the free, because we are also the home of the brave.

Gail Chumbley is the author of River of January, a memoir.

A Modest History of American Labor

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I grew up in a union household. And truth be told, the benefits of the Steel Workers Union saw me through college, making my career in education possible. Through a combination of post-war prosperity, cheap hydro power from the Columbia River, and full industrial production at Kaiser Aluminum, my life took an affirming and enriching path. Of course at the time, I didn’t understand the real cost paid for my good life, until I taught Labor History to high school juniors. What I found in my research was a story of real people enduring violence and intimidation that, in the end, made possible the emergence of America as the world’s greatest economic power.

Labor strikes in the 19th Century were especially bitter, bathed in violence and bloodshed. Operating under the creed of “The Gospel of Wealth,” entitled industrialists viewed workers as a cheap and plentiful commodity, no more than a cog in mass production. Governments at all level consistently lined up with owners to quash any attempts labor made to organize or strike for better conditions.

Andrew Carnegie detested upstart workers, and to preclude organizing placed workers of different nationalities next to each other on the line. Languages barriers removed the threat.

Another handy legal device, the Injunction, permitted a way for state governors to utilize Federal troops in quelling labor’s efforts. A governor could claim interstate commerce was blocked impeding state to state transportation of mail and freight. Once troops were deployed, guns blazing into crowds of strikers, any chance for resolution ended violently.

The most vivid use of the injunction concerned the Pullman Strike of 1894. Employees of the Pullman Palace Car Company found their lives dominated by the company’s powerful owner, George Pullman. Workers lived in his company town, Pullman, Illinois, paying utilities, rent, and other fees each month to the industrialist. When workers wages were drastically cut in the Panic of 1893, Mr. Pullman still demanded his same monthly payments. Assisted by the American Railway Union, the Pullman workers voted to strike demanding fairness during the economic downturn. Strike leaders knew they had to avoid an injunction at all costs. So to avoid the possibility of inviting trouble, the strikers took care that the trains continued moving through the state. Rail workers aiding the Pullman strikers simply unhooked the Pullman Cars, parking them on side tracks, reconnecting the rest of the train cars and continuing business. Mr. Pullman was not amused.

Soon the U.S. Attorney General issued the inevitable injunction, dispatching federal troops to enter the fray. In the end, soldiers opened fire, killing some thirty strikers, and wounding many more. This strike ended, but this time the heavy-handed tactics used by Pullman left the general public uneasy. In a land that touted liberty and freedom, the imperial power flexed by the powerful industrialist seemed un-American.

Other labor disputes followed the same pattern; The Haymarket Riot in 1886 resulted in a number of hangings, the Homestead Strike of 1892 was broken up by an army of hired guns, and the tragedy of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in 1911 that killed nearly 150 immigrant girls, and so many more.

Still, despite many violent setbacks, the suffering endured by labor had a positive effect. When Theodore Roosevelt became president in 1901, he brought about remarkable changes. In 1902 an anthracite coal strike threatened the well being of a nation facing the coming winter with scarce coal supplies. The miners were demanding recognition of their union, better wages and safety conditions, and a shorter work day. But the mine owners wouldn’t budge, refusing to dignify the authority of the union to represent anyone. But those owners didn’t understand who they were dealing with in Theodore Roosevelt.

Essentially TR, aided by his native sense of justice, sided with the workers. Through a convoluted set of ongoing circumstances the President pressured the owners to acquiesce to miner demands. At bottom, Roosevelt, (who referred to many capitalists as “the wealthy criminal class,”) worried about a socialist revolution in America similar to the unrest in Europe, especially in Russia. His mantra, The Square Deal meant all Americans; even the lowliest day laborer, native born or immigrant, should not suffer unjust exploitation from the rich.

Today Unions are frequently vilified by many. Yet the affirming role to the nation’s development is essential to remember. Labor Unions in partnership with capital made the American middle class possible, and in return the middle class has made the prosperity of this nation possible.

We all owe much to American Labor traditions, and not just on this particular three day weekend. Very early industrial workers demanded and won the Sabbath off as a day of worship—both Jews and Christians alike. Today we still enjoy that tradition in our weekend, Saturday and Sunday.

Have a thoughtful Labor Day

Gail Chumbley is the author of River of January