A D.C. trip with 8th graders puts politics in perspective


After surviving the months-long opening act of campaign speeches, debates, commercials, and yard signs that proliferated like weeds, I missed the grand finale. For the first time in recent memory, I wasn’t glued to the tube on election night.

I wasn’t flipping channels to see what the talking heads were saying or watching too-close-to-call contests until the bitter end. I was on a bus with a bunch of chattering eighth graders who were oblivious to the evening’s political ramifications.

The last thing on their minds was the election. They weren’t tracking how close the presidential race was in Florida, Colorado, and Nevada. They didn’t care whether Ohio went blue or red.

They were giddy with anticipation of an overnight class trip to Washington.

Highlights in the nation’s capital awaited. They were ready for adventure, equipped with iPods, pillows, blankets, and snacks.

The pending outcome of the 2012 presidential election, the U.S. Senate race in Ohio, or the local school levy, wasn’t on their adolescent radar. When they learned who won the presidential election, they shrugged. It was like hearing the final score of a game nobody cared about.

Over the din of teenage tumult, I followed developments on a small radio, worthless through mountain tunnels. Text messages saved my sanity, trumpeting the night’s winners and losers. I was dying to talk politics. The other adult chaperones were determined to sleep.

Even the school superintendent, informed early of another levy defeat, had his eyes closed. I was wide awake. In a political vacuum, all I could do was fidget in my seat until a pre-dawn stop for breakfast.

The tour began at the Capitol. A script on a wall in the visitors’ section read: E Pluribus Unum. Out of many, one. It would be the theme of our trip.

Time and again, American history teaches how disparate views and vehement disagreements coalesced to mold a more perfect union. From museums to monuments, the message is unmistakable: Out of heated differences and diversity come strength.

That’s reassuring after the animus of the just-concluded election.

The tour guide led us to the Capitol rotunda. She noted how the ceiling-to-floor paintings depict the nation’s Founders arguing over the blueprint of a brand-new government.

They were often at loggerheads, in strident opposition, unwilling to concede a thing, she said. Yet they forged the “greatest county on Earth,” declared our bus driver, an Air Force veteran.

The Constitution they crafted is something to take personally, he told his passengers. People died for it. What registers slowly is awe.

From triumph to tragedy, what unifies Americans is bigger than what divides us. At the Newseum, a compelling film features reporters and photographers who covered the 9/11 attacks. They were eyewitnesses to the carnage. Outside the theater is a box of tissues. A collective heaviness hangs in the air.

At Arlington National Cemetery, the story is about solidarity and sacrifice. The hallowed ground is home to those who died to preserve and protect one nation, indivisible.

An eternal flame guards the grave site of an assassinated president. A solemn military contingent guards the Tomb of the Unknowns. Students place a wreath in respect.

At the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, a stark place of steel and concrete, new generations struggle to grasp what depths of intolerance produced.

Healing national divisiveness is ongoing at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Nearby, a monument to the Great Emancipator is enduring testament that a house divided cannot stand.

The last stop on our post-election trip put irreconcilable political differences in perspective. In an unremarkable Pennsylvania field, where the fourth hijacked plane on 9/11 crashed, an individual regularly campaigns about conspiracy behind the tragedy.

The propriety of his presence at the Shanksville memorial is questioned by other guests, especially foreign visitors. But a park volunteer said the Americans, who foiled the hijackers’ plans to attack Washington, died to save our right to disagree. Denying free speech at the site would be an affront to them.

By focusing on the climax of a hostile election, I almost missed what a busload of eighth graders, bound for a shared experience, took for granted about divergent paths that led to the same destination.

Out of many, one.

Marilou Johanek is a columnist for The Blade. Contact her at: mjohanek@theblade.com