Blog: May 2022
“What happened here?”
One of our 10th grade students asked me this question as we stood before hulking dark gray stones wet with a rain that had been falling all day. Dubbed the title of Devil’s Den during the 1700s, the stones were very large, some as tall as ten or fifteen feet.
I pointed to the stones and the tight gaps between them, “That’s where Bob said the soldiers died due to the sound echoing off the stones. Soldiers hid in between the stones to hide from shots from that hill.” I pointed to the nearby hill named Little Round Top. “But when they were hiding in the rocks, the sound from the cannons and gunfire would bounce off the stones and it killed them with the concussion of the sound. Just the sound!” The student looked up at the stones, eyes growing wide and then walked away. The history of Gettysburg finally settling in.
The Civil War History Tour’s entire purpose is to give students the fuller, realer, and more present picture of the history they learn in the classroom. For our tenth grade, that learning distance was short indeed. Just the three days before we had left on our trip, students learned of the John Brown rebellion in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia and the beginning of what would eventually escalate into the Civil War.
The town of Harpers Ferry of 2022, as it turned out, is part small waterfront town and part national historical park. Curio shops and pubs met old brick foundations of what once stood in the 19th century. The sights of the town were met with the beauty of the two rivers of the Potomac and the Shenandoah River joining to form the frothing and surging borders of West Virginia, Virginia, and Maryland. One of our students insisted on borrowing the camera to take photos of everything in every nook and cranny of the town. Later inspection of the camera roll showed such bizarre photos as pictures of lines of pots and pans to pictures of wine-scented soap from a gift shop. As strange as it may seem, the honest curiosity and desire to capture the moments experienced on this trip was encouraging. Perhaps, when seeing those photos of maps and gun exhibits, they would not only remember the times with their peers and UrbanTrekkers staff, but perhaps they would remember the events of that era. Of a man named John Brown fighting for his life in a small town with a few close friends, trying to make a difference in a world that wasn’t fully ready for him yet. Just maybe those students would remember that, even if they can’t see it, the actions they take will be remembered for the impressions and impact that they had. Just maybe they would remember how hard people can fight for what they believe.
The sun cast an array of deep oranges and warm maroons over dunes and small glistening waves of a quiet South Carolina beach. It contrasted with the bright light of a growing campfire at my feet. Of the two it was hard to tell which made my heart feel warmer. As my boss Jim Cummings would put it: “It was good for the soul.”
There is something to be said for the soul. We as a society tend to feed our mind and delicately consider the health of the body. But few people tend to the soul with as much dedication and care. Our students need to be given this time and care as well. So we endeavor to give these soul filling moments.
It was around the campfire on this beach that we had this conversation. I wanted to know how they felt about these experiences and what can keep people from experiencing them. One student raised their hand and said, “I like coming to these trips because it feels like the one place I can be myself. At home, I have to take care of my siblings and make food and do chores, but here…I can just be myself.” Another student chimed in, “It’s the people that keep me coming back. Getting to know and spend time with you guys makes me want to go on these trips.”
The time with our students and seeing them grow on our trips and in our journeys across state lines and habitats is a powerful thing. Earlier that same day, I had shared with our students my joy of holding reptiles and amphibians. I carefully told each to try to take one step outside their comfort zone and if they could take even more. Many were daunted by this task, the scaly skin and unblinking eyes of a snake are not exactly comforting or cuddly by traditional standards. In fact, most had sworn they would never touch either when leaving for the trip. So it was with great delight that I saw all of them hold a snake and many even touched a young alligator.
It is in small moments of growth that we can see the larger changes that are happening in our children. The same changes that will help them overcome their fear of applying for a job or speaking up for what they believe. Or perhaps, on a smaller but just as important level, doing something that is “good for the soul” like breathing in the slightly salted air of a beach breeze.