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Monday, December 7, 2009

Pearl Harbor Is Still a Teachable Moment

As December 7th comes around again, as it inevitably does every year, I take note of how many ceremonies or remembrances are held in the area where I live (New York City) to mark the occasion. Sadly, each year the number of events keeps dwindling, now mostly confined to Veterans of Foreign War or American Legion posts. What is even more alarming is that the day is not recognized in any tangible way by schools, thus taking away a very important teachable moment for our children.

Since the attacks on September 11, 2001, we have marked that day with significant ceremonies in New York, Washington D.C., Pennsylvania, and across the nation. The day was officially declared “Patriot Day” on September 4, 2002; while not an official national holiday, it is one that is observed in various ways across the country and in schools. Still, as the years go by I do hear some people complaining about too much TV coverage and wondering when we will get over it. The point is that we should never get over it because 9/11, like Pearl Harbor, should be commemorated as a day we honor those who died in an unprovoked attack on our nation.

When I was a boy, my father was very active in his local VFW in Queens, NY, eventually becoming commander of his post. I recall large Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day parades every year, my father marching along with all his buddies dressed in their uniforms. My dad was a veteran of World War II, as were many of the other men there. At the time there were also men marching in the parade who served in World War I and Korea.

I think I was five years old when I went to my first parade. Since I was small, my father put me in one of the big cars to ride with old vets who were unable to walk the parade route. As the band played patriotic songs, I looked up at the old fellows sitting there proudly with medals shining brightly on their uniforms. One man was wearing what looked like an old cavalry uniform that I saw in westerns on TV. It had bright buttons running down the front and captain's bars on the shoulders. He was so thin, the uniform sagged on his body like he was a kid playing dress-up with his father’s clothing.

The old man just stared ahead, but he held his head high and was obviously very proud to be there. I asked one of the other men about him and he said, “That’s Martin. He is a veteran of the Civil War.” I couldn’t believe it but the man continued, “He was a bugle boy and I think about as old as you are right now when he served.”

Of course, I said, “Wow.” The man continued, “He went on to fight in the Indian wars and even knew General George Armstrong Custer. As you can see, he retired a captain and that was before I was born in 1899.”

I wondered how old he was and the man said, “He’s one hundred and seven years old. Martin doesn’t talk much anymore, but I make sure he goes to everything. You see, I am his son.” The man went on to tell me how he fought in France during WWI and how his son also fought in France during WWII. It was a day I will never forget, and I think that’s the whole point: we have to experience something in order to understand and respect it. Reading about history is wonderful, but learning about it from a person who was there has a much more powerful impact.

These days war has become so political and the notion of patriotism is seen as passé or perhaps negative by many people, especially some of those people who stand in front of our children’s classrooms. I do understand their reticence to discuss war and their worry about political ramifications, but if we take current politics out of the equation, as well we should when teaching about history, we are left with the story itself. What else is history but the story of what has happened?

Right now it is difficult to tell we are a nation at war. Everything is in abundance, despite the troubled economy. We can get gasoline, milk, bread, and all the other things we take for granted without any problems. My father has noted this and also recognizes that the young people of today don’t care about the war. He says that it doesn’t concern them as long as they have their iPods, their cell phones, and cable television. Dad has said that even adults act like there is no war going on. He thinks we are like a nation of ostriches, shoving our heads in the sand so we can avoid the world around us and the reality of what is happening.

Imagine today’s kids living through what kids endured during WWII? Would they be able to cope with scrap metal drives and gasoline rationing? Would they understand blackouts and air raid drills? Would they appreciate the threat to our way of life from overseas from an enemy that desired to conquer us and make German our national language?

If you ask kids about Pearl Harbor today, very few know what you are talking about. As an educator for twenty-six years, I have heard quite a few amazing things in my classrooms, but the most bizarre was when I was talking about Pearl Harbor during a lesson, and a student raised his hand and asked, “Who was she?” I didn’t connect and asked, “Who?” And he replied, “You know, who was Pearl Harbor?” I know that seems like an Abbott and Costello routine, but it is not because he, and many other students, did not know about this pivotal historical event.

Today, many students are only taught about Pearl Harbor as a date on a timeline, the event that launched the country into WWII. The attack itself is not examined, the causes for the attack are not explored, and the events that followed are not taught substantially.

I understand we are very concerned these days with reading scores and math scores on state examinations, but why are we not worried about our children’s understanding of history’s crucial moments, especially one like Pearl Harbor that launched our country into the war that defined much of the last century and still reverberates in this one.

When I was in school, veterans were always a part of the landscape. They visited our classrooms regularly when invited by teachers to impart their wisdom about past events. I remember being riveted by descriptions of battles in the European and Asian theaters of WWII. I also enjoyed hearing about what life was like in boot camps, on the battlefield, and on ships during the war. None of this was warmongering and did nothing to encourage students to go sign up for the armed forces; however, it provided a crucial human factor in understanding the nature of war and the toll it takes on soldiers and their families.

When there were major holidays like Memorial Day or Veteran’s Day, we had an assembly and the men from the local VFW would come in full uniform. They would march into the auditorium with rifles on their shoulders led by a full color guard, and then select members would go to the microphone and speak. Yes, this does make for a patriotic moment, but it also encourages students in a very public and rather powerful way to learn something that is not available in the pages of the NYS curriculum guides.

Sadly, many of the veterans from World War II are gone now or, like my father, are too disabled to make the trip into classrooms. We should extend the same courtesy though to veterans of Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. I think it is crucial for the students to see these men and women, hear their stories first-hand, and acquire an appreciation for their efforts and sacrifice in serving their country.

Pearl Harbor stands out as a defining moment in American history. Its anniversary should be marked with significant public ceremonies and corresponding activities in schools that make children aware of its importance. December 7, 1941, was not just another day, but one that President Franklin D. Roosevelt rightly noted as “a date that will live in infamy.” How sad that the day is slowly being relegated to the backburner, noted only as one line in a textbook, and not as the day that changed America and the world forever.

2, 402 service people were killed that day and almost 2,000 were wounded. Many ships were lost, and our country took a devastating blow from a powerful opponent. Students must understand what events led up to the attack, how afterwards our nation came together to set in motion all its resources to literally defeat evil, and that all those soldiers in all those graves died for a cause that quite frankly saved the world.

It is up to us to truly make the difference. We can speak to our children’s teachers and the principals in our schools. We can encourage veterans to volunteer their services to schools as well, and we can write to our elected representatives and ask that more emphasis be placed on observing this day. We owe it to all those men entombed in the USS Arizona, to every soldier who died in the war that followed the attack, and mostly we owe it to our children. They need to appreciate and understand what happened in the past to fully comprehend why we are where we are now. We must do everything we can to make certain that December 7, 1941, is indeed a day that will be forever remembered.