Inauguration Day a day to teach history in Cape classrooms

Wednesday, January 21, 2009
KIT DOYLE ~ kdoyle@semissourian.com
The Obama inauguration plays in the background of lunch Tuesday at Central Middle School in Cape Girardeau. Classes throughout the district watched the inauguration.

In Russell Grammer's fourth-grade classroom at Jefferson Elementary School, Norman Rockwell's painting of 6-year-old Ruby Bridges surrounded by federal marshals holds a place of honor at the front of the room.

The 1960 painting, "The Problem We All Live With," depicts Bridges, standing straight and looking forward, in her role as the first black child to enroll in a previously all-white New Orleans school. And, Grammer told his class after President Barack Obama was inaugurated as the first black president, the painting shows how far -- and how fast -- things have moved in race relations.

"It wasn't too long ago that our country was a completely different place," Grammer said at one point in the morning.

Blond-haired Rebekah Garner understood. "Now that he can do it, people are going to say they can do it," she said.

Grammer agreed, and told the class that they, too, can achieve great things. "That is powerful for me as a teacher, to think that any of you could be the president," he told his 17 students.

Tuesday was a day to teach history, shed light on the progress of race relations and celebrate one of the great traditions of American democracy, that humble beginnings don't bar the door to achievement.

Grammer and his students watched the inaugural festivities on the Internet. Despite the choppy video, the sound came through for the entire event. When Obama finished his speech, Grammer asked his pupils to recall the great civil rights leaders they have studied -- a list that includes Abraham Lincoln, Sojourner Truth and Martin Luther King Jr. -- and imagine how they would react to the swearing-in of the nation's first black president.

He asked them to recall lessons on the courage of the leaders and how they changed history.

The class began their assignment before they broke for recess and lunch. "That speech was like a bird's song in my ear," wrote Jefferson Elementary School fourth-grader Madison Hankins as she imagined what poet Maya Angelou would say.

Grammer also asked the students to take notes or make drawings during the inauguration and keep them as mementos to tell their own children about how they spent the day Obama took over.

The spectacle from Washington can be a force for good in the lives of his students, Grammer said after they left for their recess. He said he has sought to show his students examples of strong role models. He uses George Washington Carver, a Newton County, Mo., native born into slavery who became one of the great scientists of his day at the Tuskegee Institute, as a model.

"Students connect with the hardships he faced because many of my students face difficult, hard times at home," he said. "Anything inspiring is the key. They have a definition of strength that looks like defiance. I want them to see what true strength looks like."

Obama is the modern example of inner strength overcoming early hardship, Grammer said.

He wants the students to have heroes, he said.

"I want them to say I want to be like that 6-year-old girl," Grammer said.

rkeller@semissourian.com

388-3642

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