I student teach at a rural high school in Adams County, Pennsylvania, where I’ve been periodically teaching a unit on Congressional Medal of Honor recipients. Students get to watch the living histories of recipients such as Sammy Davis, the inspiration for Forrest Gump’s fictional story, and George E. “Bud” Day, John McCain’s fellow POW at the North Vietnamese “Hanoi Hilton.” It’s absolutely amazing to see the tenth-graders laugh, cry, and watch in horror as the recipients recount their tales.
The epitome of this experience came about two weeks ago when I had each student write a two-paragraph letter of thanks to their favorite hero through the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation. I was astounded by the responses I received. Some students wrote several pages, while others opted to write to several recipients. Students wrote that they related to some of the recipients on issues of race, income, faith, and academic and athletic performance. Others wrote that they hope to grow up to be half as courageous as their hero. Since my cooperating teacher and I mailed the letters over a week ago, the students have asked us every day if we’ve received any responses from the recipients. They look forward to receiving a response from their hero like Christmas morning.
Students’ passion for this project reminds me why I want to teach. Teenagers are capable of empathizing with and respecting others. With the guidance of a well-trained teacher, they’re also very capable of having a genuine passion for studying the past. I hope to continue to harvest this hunger for history in other students I come in contact with as I progress through my career in education.
This project also reminds me why I study the past. History humanizes us. It requires us to focus on the other rather than ourselves. It forces us to walk a mile in the shoes of someone much different than ourselves. History is, in my opinion, the most emotional of the humanities disciplines because of this. If studying the past makes you sob, laugh hysterically, or want to scream in frustration, you’re probably doing it right.
I thank God everyday for the opportunity to work with such an outstanding group of tenth-graders. I also thank all military personnel who risk their lives daily to defend this great country.