Star Tribune July 4, 2002

Young teens are deeply skeptical about enthusiasm in adults. Their own interests, in clothes or music, or each other, can be positively dizzying, but adult attachments are viewed with a jaundiced eye, especially when the fall under the general rubric of education. The more fervently the adult tries to share, the more distant the students can become. The average end-of-the-year field trip can be an extended exercise in sighs, vacant looks and adjustments of coiffure.


Not with Mrs. Conway.


Maureen Conway is a history teacher at Mounds Park Academy in St. Paul. She is an expressive and energetic woman who, along with several hardy colleagues, has been taking seventh-graders to Washington, D.C., on a spring trip for the last 18 years. This year, the count was 49, and the first stop was a grassy spot on the edge of Arlington National Cemetery, Standing right there near the idling buses, under the eyes of 19 tagging parent chaperones, Conway set about infecting the children with history.


She leaned in. They leaned in. An occasional passerby leaned in. “We are at Arlington National Cemetery,” Conway said emphatically. “This is where you learn what it means to be an American. These people fought for you. These people died for you. Think about that.”


Unabashedly, energetically, she began what turned into four days of continuous American stories. At Arlington, the tale of how Robert E. Lee’s estate was turned into a Union graveyard after he went for the South, and the first bodies were buried in his wife’s rose garden. They buried the bodies in the garden?! Not a backpack rustled. The group stood in the presence of a true enthusiast, and true enthusiasm is highly contagious.


Young people, who know they are growing toward an uncertain future, need enthusiasm. It is a quality closely related to curiosity and energy, and those are contagions we want every generation to catch. Catching a bug for American history is very close to catching a bug for citizenship, and the national’s capitol can be the best place to pick up a permanent infection.


So what are the ideas caught by these young people traveling to Washington, D.C., in the spring of 2002, in the company of an unabashed enthusiast on the subject of American history?


*History can stir the heart. Actor John Wilkes Booth knew the play on the boards at Ford’s Theater, so he watched for his cue, and shot President Abraham Lincoln during the loudest laugh line. He then leaped from the presidential box, and paused at center stage to shout, “Sic semper tyrannis!” As Booth galloped away on a horse that had been held by a stagehand, Lincoln had begun to die. He was carried across the street and laid in a boardinghouse bed.


*The past was inhabited by people just like you. Learning “courtesies” in Colonial Williamsburg, the girls were instructed to look demurely downward when meeting a gentleman. The downcast eyes are for inspecting his calf, outstretched politely during his bow. If it is muscular, he may be wealthy enough to own a horse and might be a good catch. “Check him out, girls,” urged the smiling guide. “Display your left hand so he can see you are not married.”


*History is personal. The school’s tour-bus driver pointed proudly to photos in a special display at Arlington’s Women’s Memorial. His 11-year-old-nephew, round-faced in his school picture, was aboard Flight 77 and was lost when it crashed into the Pentagon last September. He had won an academic award at his school, his uncle said; the prize was a trip to California. The tour bus had just drive past the pentagon; repairs were nearly complete.


*Your own families are part of history. One girl found her own last name on the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial, and made a rubbing to take home. One of the parents searched the wall for the name of a boy from her hometown. In college, she’d worn a POW_MIA bracelet with his name on it. Her own mother, and the lost soldier’s mother, had had lunch the previous week.


*You can be an active participant in making the history of your country. A man who is now a senior aide to Sen. Tom Daschle taught, once upon a time, at Mounds Park Academy. Following him, the students pour through security, up to the Senate majority leader’s office, and out onto his section of the portico. The Mall stretches away below toward the Washington Monument. The former teacher answered questions, smiling, A genial and assured Sen. Daschle stepped out to greet us. His shirt was blindingly white. He said he hoped we were enjoying our time in Washington. We were.


Maureen Conway led the 49 students and 19 parents through it all in four days, answering questions and asking them. In her, and in all adults who brave the bored demeanor of teens to reveal their passionate interests, young people see a glimpse of an adult future that includes strong interests, intellectual curiosity and a passionate attachment to ideas. A future like that cannot possibly be dull or hopeless.


Mrs. Conway loves monuments and memorials, and she reads the chiseled words aloud to the students. And she teaches a special way of approaching the Lincoln Memorial. Start at the bottom of the steps in the center, she said, and don’t look up while you climb. Don’t look up until you get to the very top step, and when you do, Lincoln will be looking right at you. And he’ll be asking you this question. What are you going to do for this country. Don’t look for somebody else to do something. It is your job to be a citizen, to think and vote and act. That is why Lincoln is looking right at you. He’s asking. What are you going to do for your country?


Good question, Mr. Lincoln. Good question, Mrs. Conway.