Remembering that ‘Freedom is not Free’

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Pat photographed a guard performing his duties during a rain storm at the Tomb of the Unknown Sol-dier, a monument dedicated to deceased U.S. service members whose remains have not been identi-fied. Photo by Pat Van Dyke

I am often asked, “What do you miss most now that you are no longer working in education?” I don’t have to think long. By far, what I miss most are the yearly trips that I made with my 8th grade students visiting the East Coast. That field trip was the best part of the year!

For the last 17 years that I was in education, during the third week of May, I would spend a week traveling with 80 to 100 energetic students and weary parents visiting many of the places where our nation’s early history was formed.

I often would compare that trip to childbirth. I would start preparing for the trip nine months ahead of time. The actual trip was tedious and tiring and while we were actually traveling, I swore that I would never do it again; but at the end of the trip, as the bus from the airport pulled into the school parking lot at nearly midnight, I already was making notes for next year’s trip.

It was the trip of a lifetime for most but for me, it was the hardest week of the year with the most rewarding memories of the year.

Each trip had its own memories. There was the “Chocolate Chip Cookie Trip.”  I had discovered that the day we were arriving in Philadelphia was “National Chocolate Chip Cookie Day.” Pastor Pete was given the duty of carrying 180 homemade chocolate chip cookies through the airport, on the plane, on the bus and finally to distribute them to the 90 travelers as they were sitting on the “Rocky Steps” for our “Chocolate Chip Cookie Celebration.” Pastor Pete did it without breaking even one cookie but last week, he couldn’t carry my vintage baking dish across the church parking lot without dropping it and breaking it into a thousand pieces!

When traveling with 8th grade students, you always have to keep one step ahead of them and expect the unexpected, such as a student giving his laundry to “someone” in the hotel and asking to have it returned to their room the next morning when the hotel didn’t have a laundry service.

Another memorial hotel stay was when one room of the students decided they wanted to warm the cookies that they had purchased earlier in the day. Within minutes, the entire floor smelled like burnt snickerdoodles and everyone was asked to evacuate the floor.

At midnight, the evening after our tour of the Gettysburg Battlefield, one of our night chaperones woke me to tell me there were strange noises coming from a room of boys. I donned my bathrobe and knocked on the door. As the door was slowly opened and I peered into the room, both mattresses and box springs were sitting on their sides with several boys peeking out of the mattress’s shadows. Other boys were perched on the dresser and nightstands. My question of “What are you doing? It’s midnight, you should be sleeping,”   was answered by a choir of boys stating, “We are having a reenactment of the Battle of Gettysburg and you are standing on Seminary Ridge.” Within moments, I instructed them on how to have a “silent battle” and for the next 30 minutes, a fierce reenactment battle with whispering participants took place and didn’t end until I met my demise on Little Round Top.

Then there was the student who spent all his souvenir money the first day of the trip on a complete collection of “Rocky Movies.” Fortunately, I had his parents’ phone numbers on speed dial, and he was soon standing in the return line of the gift shop.

One of the highlights of each trip was a time to do “stupid human tricks.” While the parents were enjoying a quiet dinner downstairs, the teachers and I would host an entertaining program of students upstairs sharing talents such as being double jointed, moving eyebrows separately and wiggling ears. I thought we had reached the pinnacle of talent when we discovered a student that could place her entire fist in her mouth until a student showed me his glass eye staring out of his navel. Oh, the stories that I could tell!

Every year, my biggest blessing was watching history come alive for my students and our adult travelers. You can read about history, learn the dates and recite the documents but until you have walked the battlefields or climbed the stairs of the places where history was made, you haven’t fully experienced the wonders of our American history.

On one of my first trips with students, an accompanying teacher taught me what it was all about. Tillie Enriquez was nearing retirement and had never had the opportunity to visit the historical East Coast. Tillie was a member of a large migrant family who traveled from state to state and field to field to seek employment throughout the year. When Tillie was 10, she met a teacher in Sunday School who told her she could be anything that she wanted to be. From that day on, Tillie set her sights on becoming a history teacher. After a tedious struggle, she did just that, she earned her college degree and became a teacher.

After I had made several trips to Washington, D.C., I discovered how to secure a time for a large group of students and a limited number of adults to tour the White House. When the day arrived for our tour, I stayed behind but sent Tillie as the school’s representative during the White House visit. I greeted every student as they exited the White House; each student was excited and inspired. Tillie was last. She ran up to me, hugged me and with tears running down her cheeks uttered, “Imagine that!  Tillie Enriquez, little migrant girl, just visited the White House, the home of the President of the United States.”

My desired result of each trip was to instill in my students a sense of pride in the heritage of our nation. I wanted them to experience what freedom was and to learn the cost of that freedom. My timing of the trip was centered around that thought and the third week in May for 17 years you would find me with my students standing in what I feel is the most revered spot in the nation: The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

It was there that my students learned about the vast number of individuals that had given their lives not only for our country but also for the freedom of each of us present. It was there that we participated in a Wreath Laying Ceremony, a ceremony so well-deserved by so many. Often, this was one of the last events of the trip. An event that would be embedded in their thoughts as only a few days later, they would be in their homes reflecting on the actual meaning of Memorial Day: A day to remember and honor those who had given their lives to protect our great country.

I pray that each and every one of the hundreds of students who accompanied me to Arlington will, this Memorial Day, take time to remember that “Freedom is not Free.”

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Pat Van Dyke