Monday, February 18, 2008

Honoring Our Presidents

Today is Presidents Day in the United States. As a public school employee, I have the day "off," as do my children, from school. Yesterday I posted "Week Thirty-Two: Honoring Our Leaders" on my blog of journal prompts, AnceStories2: Stories of Me for My Descendants. I've encouraged my readers to write what they remember about celebrating and honoring the birthdays of two great leaders of our country...or for my non-U.S. readers, writing how leaders of their own country are honored. In this post, I've chosen to write my own responses to the prompts.

Honoring our leaders is not a concept many of us think about anymore. With the Sixties Revolution, the Viet Nam War, and the Watergate Scandal, leaders are no longer accepted as honorable, respected individuals of authority, dedicated to carrying out the will of the people. Instead, we're convinced they're all crooks, out to get glory for themselves, and to play their party's political games. Unfortunately, this has been proved to be true countless times, and this attitude has colored our perspective of even the truly great leaders of our country, such as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. We're too focused on their humanness, their weaknesses, and the mistakes they made while in office to see that for the most part, they were men of integrity and courage, and sacrificed much personally for the good of the country.

As a child, I don't remember celebrating either president's birthday in elementary school. I couldn't tell you if we had a day off for honoring either one, although we probably had Presidents Day off when I was in high school. I don't remember any lessons that focused on Washington or Lincoln other than when we came to learning about them in the context of American history when we started studying that subject in fifth grade. I do know that we never had an assembly or watched a play that focused on either of these leaders, in all of my years of school.

I do remember reading about both Washington and Lincoln as a girl in elementary school. For a town of about 300, without a public library, our school and classroom libraries were phenomenal! Our principal/superintendent was married to the woman who was my teacher for three years, second through fourth grades, and together they ordered all the latest books in education and literature for the little school. I especially remember biographies of American leaders and Native Americans published by the Garrard Publishing Company, as well as the Childhood of Famous Americans series by the Bobbs-Merrill Company. We also ordered books from Scholastic. Between these and the influence of my parents, I developed a love of history, and can recall things I learned from reading these books over thirty years ago!

In my humble opinion, Abraham Lincoln was our greatest president, not just because he held the country together during a time of crisis; not just because of the Emancipation Proclamation (which I believe was more a political move on his part); but mainly because of his courage to stand for what he believed while under probably some of the heaviest criticism a president has had to endure, both politically (from his own party--not just from the South), but personally. Many forget that his wife was from the South, and that his own family was a prime example of brother against brother, father against son. He also had great compassion, and had he not been assassinated, it's clear that Reconstruction would not have been a time of vengeance against the South. It's possible that the Jim Crow attitude against African-Americans might not have taken place, or may have been less severe, preventing much of the anguish and terror that lead to the Civil Rights Movement.

Because I work for a public school district, as I've mentioned earlier, I get Presidents Day off. The State of Washington requires that prior to having Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Birthday and Veterans Day off, the school must provide either an assembly and/or lessons to address the reasons behind the holiday (I'm in agreement with this, 100%!). However, it does not do this for Presidents Day or Memorial Day. I feel that this is not equitable, and that we are cheating our children of learning opportunities. Our children learn more about the Civil Rights Movement than about American history--which caused and shaped that movement--as a whole. Another thing I dislike about the attitude taken towards Presidents Day is that is it often commercialized. With tax returns upon us, businesses are using this time to profit. I'm especially annoyed by automobile dealerships' and furniture businesses' commercials on television that have costumed figures of Washington and Lincoln urging potential customers to shop at their stores. The public would be outraged if a costumed figure of M.L. King was used in commercials the same way during his holiday, yet we don't even blink when George and Abe are jumping up and down and shouting at us to buy the latest vehicle!

Finally, Presidents Day is also a time when Purple Heart recipients are honored--military personnel who have been wounded or killed while serving on or after 5 April 1917. While reading the criteria for this decoration, I realized that at least one family member has been eligible for this award, my maternal grandfather's brother John Chester "Chet" VALK, a member of the 101st Airborne Division who was killed parachuting over Foy, Belgium during the Battle of the Bulge in World War II. I am going to have to ask family members if he was ever awarded this medal posthumously.
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