Every middle schooler who passed through Mr. Bement's eighth grade social studies class in Ellington, Connecticut learned two things. (Well, to be fair, we learned more than just two things. But these two really stuck.) The first, and more debatable of the two, was that Willie Nelson is a musical genius and the greatest country singer ever to grace the airwaves. The second, and more relevant to this conversation, was that the Gettysburg Address is one of the most powerful and important speeches ever delivered, and is worthy of learning top to bottom. So it was that scads of 13-year-olds in the small town where I grew up could recite Lincoln's famous words. Many of us still can today.
The challenge went out each year -- put your hands on a copy of the Address (which, pre-Google, likely meant photocopying it from the library's World Book Encyclopedia), learn each word, and recite it before the class.
In the interest of authenticity, I skipped the library and used a reproduction of the Address printed on parchment -- the sort an overeager student might pick up on a family vacation to Washington, DC. I dutifully studied the cursive words on the "aged" paper. I looked up what a "score" is and wondered why Lincoln couldn't just have said 87 years. I tried to figure out how you could consecrate ground. I mean, I had grown up Catholic so I knew the word consecrate. But I figured that word was reserved for church. I also looked up the word "hallow." Was that sort of like "hollow"? (No, as it turns out.) I repeated the 272 words in my head and aloud. To my parents and my sisters. And finally to the 20 pairs of adolescent eyes looking back at me in front of the classroom. Challenge completed. Lesson learned.
Twenty years (or should I say "one score") later, I find myself working for PBS's preeminent history series. And now I've thrown down the gauntlet, asking people from across the country to send videos of themselves reciting the Address. People responded with gusto.
See, as smart as Lincoln was, he made one major miscalculation. About halfway through his address, he humbly purported that "The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here." Boy was he wrong. And we have the videos to prove it.
But as wildly inaccurate as Lincoln's statement turned out to be, it's worth thinking about. Lincoln suspected that the Battle of Gettysburg would be indelibly imprinted on the hearts and minds of Americans. After all, how could a battle that left a staggering 51,000 men dead, wounded, captured, or missing recede into the shadows of our memory? How could the turning point of the deadliest war fought on American soil be forgotten? How could his words loom larger in history books than the battle that inspired them? Pondering those questions, it's easy to understand why Lincoln may have misjudged.
So now I put forth another challenge -- a challenge I feel would do Mr. Bement proud. Read the Gettysburg Address. Memorize it. But more importantly, learn what it means. Find out what happened on that battlefield in Pennsylvania. Understand what each side was fighting for, even if you disagree. What was so important to those 51,000 Union and Confederate soldiers, and the thousands more who got out unscathed, that they willingly put themselves in the line of fire? I remember Mr. Bement asking those questions. But it took me 20 years to realize that the answers were more important than the task at hand.
Check out the submission voted Staff Favorite!
We are grateful to the many people who submitted their videos, and hope you enjoy the result!
The following appear in the video:
Edward W. Morley Elementary School Fifth Grade Class (Maeve Healy, Hannah Duzy, Chase Gengras, Madeline Arcaro, Jessica Anziano, Mina Dickson, Charlotte Kennedy, Isabella Phelan, Fionnuala Sullivan, Eden Nenshati, Chloe Ottani, Joshua Parks, Akshatha Nair, Ike Moemeka, Lauren Rekow)
The Beacon School (Elizabeth Moreno, Mireya Chiraboga, Edward Nelson, Joseph Fernandez, Khadeedja Muheto, Bintou Khaba, Fariha Angum, Gio Dingcong, Gabrielle Pasiak)
Henry Lincoln Nelson
James Sleys (Washington Mills Boy Scout Troop)
Patrick Lawless (Lisa Carotenuto, Victoria Carotenuto)
Grant Klinkner (Washington Mills Boy Scout Troop)
Haley Clark (Derek Blanchard)
Dana L West Jr Sr High School
Gage Kilborne (Washington Mills Boy Scout Troop)
Tulsa Homeschool Co-Op (Jack Gower, Julia Nix, Victoria Cruz, Juliette Jobe, Will Faust, Bethany Smith, Jonathan Snell, Hannah Higginbotham, Ella Frame, Jacob Bader, Teacher: Gayla Gower)
Complete Boy Scout Troop: (Isaias Steppello, James Sleys, Brendan Kilpatrick, Chris Sleys, Dan McKeown, Grant Klinkner, Josiah Abbadessa, Gage Kilborne, Leader: John Ivory)
Note: This American Experience project is similar to, but separate from, the Ken Burns "Learn the Address" project. We encourage you to share your videos with "Learn the Address!"
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