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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Presidential Inauguration

Last week when it was announced that the entire 6th grade would be watching the Inauguration in its entirety, I was immediately worried about my special ed students sitting through the hours of pomp and circumstance leading up to an event that few of them seemed to understand. Since I'm no longer a classroom teacher, I don't get a chance to plan lessons or work with the kids on any type of unique curriculum, but because I'm such a history buff, I decided to run a contest. Yesterday was Martin Luther King Day, today the Inauguration of our nation's first African American President. I printed out photos of MLK giving his famous "I Have a Dream" speech at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial. I taped up photos of JFK and RFK, two of our countries greatest and most storied political leaders. I covered a bulletin board with photos of the Montgomery Bus Boycotts and the marches on Washington during our country's fight for integration. The task was simple in my eyes: 11 questions about our nation's history having to do with the Civil Rights Movement and how that generation's fight led to this very day when at 12:00 pm, Barack Obama would take the Oath of Office.

I was immediately disappointed when students began asking questions like, "Didn't MLK die of hypothermia?" Or, "How do I find out who signed the Emancipation Proclomation?" I was flabbergasted at the idea that these 12 year olds had no basic knowledge of their country's history.

I told my fellow teachers, "This is it. We've finally raised a generation that has no idea where they came from."

Automatically I assumed that today's Inauguration and its vast, sweeping historical significance would be lost on these students. The only way we could make them understand that the Nation's Mall was not actually a shopping center was to refer to a scene in the movie "Forrest Gump" where Tom Hanks' character is looking out over the Reflecting Pool. We had difficulty making them understand that today is the day when we would see the culmination of Dr. King's Dream as a member of a racial minority would take the highest office in our nation.

I went down to the auditorium at 11:30 to watch the minutes leading up to the Oath and the Inaugural Address. The kids were understandably restless, having just come in from recess, and other grades and classes were flooding in, making sure they didn't miss the big moment. The announcer began reading off the names of senators and government representatives who were descending the steps onto the stage at the head of the Nation's Mall, but it wasn't until Obama's calm, collected, and unarguably proud face flashed across the screen did I realize these kids know a hell of a lot more than we give them credit for.

Obama's name was announced and the auditorium erupted. Kids were clapping and cheering, chanting Obama's name. Suddenly, even the kids whose parents were staunchly against Obama's political platform were cheering along with their friends. We watched as Obama stumbled through the Oath with a smile on his face and when he said the final words, "So help me God", the noise in the auditorium was deafening. The kids were on their feet and I had a hard time keeping the tears back.

The cameras panned across the crowd as Obama delivered his Inaugural Address. The faces of individuals who were alive to see Dr. King deliver his "I Have a Dream" speech, cried as they watched their nation finally see the ultimate end to segregation. The crowd in Washington roared as Obama invoked the spirits of Dr. King and all those who fought alongside him for freedom and equality for all American people. While my cynical side frequently feels like our nation's history has begun to fade, watching today's events reminded me that as long as there is one person who remembers, our history will never disappear. We are a nation who has survived world wars, civil wars, race riots, invasions, foreign conflict, economic crisis. I hope that in seeing history being made today, some of my students will wake up one morning and say, "I want to know more" and they will take the time to discover from where they came. They will ask the questions and find a way to enrich their lives with the words and actions of those who made today possible.

"As of today, this generation, and generations to come, will never know a world without an African American president."

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