I taught my class about the Gettysburg Address today. We read the text, and I gave them a copy to decode.
The question that I asked them was this: “What was Abe Lincoln asking the American people to do when he wrote this speech?”
The kids spent about a half hour trying to decode the nineteenth century language, and to put it into some type of historical context. They worked hard, even on a sunny June day. They used dictionaries, history books and lots of conversation. They did their best to decode the hidden message in that powerful and memorable address.
They came pretty close, but they failed to really understand the message at its core.
So I rose to my feet and tried to explain. I used my knowledge of American History, of course, but I also drew on my personal experiences and beliefs. I stood before those young, tender, impressionable children, and I reached into my own most precious soul, and I did my very best to grab their hearts and leave one indelible mark.
“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. “Lincoln said that 87 years ago, the Americans who were here before us created a brand new county, and they based that country on the belief that all men are created equal, and that all humans deserve the same respect.”
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. “Abe Lincoln said that the Civil War was being fought to answer the question of whether or not a country based on freedom and equality could really last. He said that a lot of men had died to prove that a nation like that COULD succeed. He said that they were planning to honor the people who died for that proof, and that it was right for them to give that honor.”
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth. “In this section, Lincoln tells the listeners that if they really want to honor the dead, it won’t be by giving speeches or creating a gravesite. He tells his people that they can only honor the dead by promising to uphold the idea of a nation based on equality for all of its citizens. He tells the Americans of 1863 that they are duty bound to stand up and to protect a government whose power is drawn from the people, whose members are made up of the people, and whose laws will serve the will of the people.”
The children listened to me, and in spite of the warmth of the day, they responded to the intensity with which I spoke. “Why”, I asked them, “am I pushing this lesson on you? What is it that I hope to give you as my final lesson in the fifth grade?” There was a lot of shuffling, some giggling, and more than one rolled eye. It was hot, they wanted to go out to play, and they were feeling slightly uncomfortable with the passion in my voice.
Finally, one little hand was raised. “Well, um…you want US to be those people.”, she said shyly.
I nodded, smiled, looked around for another comment.
“You want us to work to save a country like that.”
“Like what?”, I demanded.
“Um, like, a country, with, like, freedom and stuff. For everyone. We have to do that.”
I kept the pressure on them, just for a bit. “Do you think that maybe in our country right now, some people don’t have equal rights?”
A hand was raised, the hand of my most popular, rarely serious, often sarcastic “I don’t care” boy. With some trepidation, I called on him, and waited for his response.
“Like, you know, like the whole same sex marriage thing. They don’t really have equality.”
I could have kissed his sarcastic little cheek, because he wasn’t kidding when he said that. He understood what I was saying.
I was telling my students, at the tender and wide eyed age of eleven that they are responsible for demanding a government whose sole purpose is to serve the needs of the governed. I was showing them that Abe Lincoln, in his everyman wisdom, was asking all of us to dedicate ourselves to the preservation of a government “of the people, by the people and for the people”.
It will be many years before these children can take action on a political front, but I am so very hopeful that my words have planted some seed, and that those seeds will one day sprout.