Every February, a co-worker and I take a group of eighth-graders to Washington D.C. for four days. This year we had 44 students, six parents, two staff members, and the two of us. We travel primarily by tour bus but often walk some distance to and from the sights. I don’t know if we covered a marathon distance during this trip, but all things considered, it felt like we had.
We met the kids and their parents at the airport at 6am. When we landed in Baltimore just before noon, it was snowing, and what should have been an hour drive into D.C. took 2.5 hours.
After a quick lunch at Union Station, we went to the Newseum. I love this place–they have a chunk of the Berlin Wall, a Pulitzer photography exhibit, and a really moving display on September 11, including the antenna from the top of the World Trade Center and a piece of the Pentagon. We also discovered an additional September 11 exhibit on a different floor–airplane engines, police car door, and people’s personal belongings–cell phones, a wallet, things like that. They also had Tim Russert’s office (complete with that whiteboard from the 2000 election) and a Civil Rights exhibit last time we were there, although I ran out of time to look for them this year.
From there we went to dinner, where I got to see J. She braved the snow to meet us! The last few years we’ve gotten together for a run one of the mornings I’m there, but since she had Achilles surgery in November she’s not back to running yet. Dinner was a worthwhile substitute.
After dinner we went through the Crime Museum, and by the time we came out, the snow had turned to sleet, pretty much icing everything over. D.C. is more prepared than Austin for this kind of weather, but still, sidewalks were slick and roads were not well-plowed. Each time we got on or off the bus, we had to climb over the little mountains of slush and snow that accumulated at the curb. This was easier in snow than slush, but my little Texan kids really didn’t have any idea how to navigate a snowbank.
It was in the 20s when we left for our wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery. I took my four participants to check in, and then we walked around to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The marble staircase was roped off, completely covered in ice and snow. A salted walkway about a foot wide snaked from the soldiers’ offices to the tomb, but everything else was icy. We were told the students would not be presenting the wreath from the staircase, but from the side. As always, it was a moving ceremony and my students performed well. From there, we walked around to the other side of the Tomb and waited for the shuttle bus. It seemed to be taking forever, so I decided I’d walk down with anyone who wanted to walk. I think I had about ten kids and two adults, and it was great. Kennedy’s gravesite was closed because of ice, but it was a beautiful walk through a quiet, snow-covered cemetery.
From there we went to Ford’s Theater. They’d had some flooding and the basement exhibits were closed, but they’d opened the second floor and the Presidential box, something I’d never seen before.
After lunch we went to the National Archives and saw the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. I also stumbled on a small exhibit about Louis Zamperini, of Unbroken, including the Purple Heart issued to his family after he’d been missing for a year.
Next up was the WWII memorial, which is beautiful by itself but also has excellent views of snow-covered Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument. Then we walked across the street and up the hill. We were early for our timed entry to Washington, so I let them play in the snow. My rule is: if it’s got “memorial” in its name, it’s not appropriate. But since this was a monument, and clearly people before us had made snowmen and otherwise tromped around in the snow, I let them get it out of their systems. And then we went to the top of the Washington Monument, something I haven’t done since before the earthquake that damaged it. And the tour guide reminded us that it was, in fact, Washington’s birthday that day.
We visited the Marine Corps War Memorial (AKA the Iwo Jima statue) as the sun began to fall behind it, which makes for a fantastic photo. Then it was on to FDR and MLK (they’re together along the frozen Tidal Basin), where Marine One flew over us as we admired Dr. King. After that we visited the Korean War Memorial, Lincoln Memorial, and Vietnam Memorial. Lincoln’s marble steps were a bit treacherous and a large section had been cordoned off, but it was still an imposing sight with the fading sunlight in the background.
When we got to the Einstein statue, I had to issue the warning, “Please do not put your fingers up Einstein’s nose.” That tells you everything you need to know about working with eighth-graders.
For dinner, we were supposed to go on a Potomac cruise, but since the Potomac has been frozen for the last couple of weeks, we ended up just having dinner on the boat while it was docked. I’m not sure the kids noticed much of a difference, since they mostly ate and danced and had fun with their friends.
We started our day at the United States Capitol. It’s under significant restoration–apparently the dome was in really bad shape, so it’s covered in scaffolding inside and out, including a big inflatable donut suspended inside the dome. Our guide was excellent–we got to go into the old Supreme Court chamber and both the old Senate and Statuary Hall (which used to be the House chamber) as well. I love that Rosa Parks’ statue is sitting down.
After our tour, we spent 30 minutes taking a panoramic picture in front of the Capitol, which is slightly less photogenic than usual due to the restoration project. The water in front of us was frozen and the wind screaming down Capitol Hill had a wind chill factor in the teens. We were glad to get back on the bus for the drive over to the Bureau of Engraving and Printing where we got to see how they make money.
After lunch we went to the Air and Space museum, one of my all-time favorites. The Spirit of St. Louis was sitting in the lobby; Apollo 11’s Columbia capsule and John Glenn’s Mercury capsule had been unceremoniously shoved into the corner. I wandered around with a couple of students: WWI, WWII, the Wright Flyer, the space program, all my favorites.
From there we went to the Holocaust museum. This was my sixth trip, and I’ll tell you, it doesn’t get any easier. It was not crowded so I took some time reading through the exhibits at the beginning–usually mobs of people congregate here and I don’t take the time to really read. This day, I did. Something else new I found was Martin Niemoller’s typewriter–he’s the author of the quote I used in class last week. I forgot until later that they’d said we could take pictures so while I didn’t get a picture of the typewriter, I did take one of his quote projected on the wall a bit later.
After dinner we visited Mr. Jefferson. I enjoy seeing him at night, but temperatures were in the teens and the wind was blowing off the frozen Tidal Basin so we didn’t stay long. We made a quick stop at the Air Force Memorial, which was mere blocks from our hotel, and then we called it a night.
It was ten degrees when we left the hotel. First stop was Starbucks because the adults were feeling the effects of this whirlwind schedule. When we came back out, the kids, imitating our bus driver’s musical choices, sang, “We want, we want Starbucks!” But we overruled them and headed out to Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home. The sun was out, so barely double-digit temperatures actually weren’t that bad. We wandered throughout the estate, visiting his gravesite, all the outbuildings and quarters, and marveled at the view of the frozen Potomac. Then we took our tour of the house. They’d finished the renovations of the New Room and it looked amazing, but there was scaffolding on the interior staircase and on the roof outside. It’s always something, I guess. All in all, we spent about two hours walking around Mt. Vernon before heading out to the National Cathedral.
Everything I know about cathedrals I learned from reading Pillars of the Earth, but I do know a few random facts: this cathedral took 83 years to complete. Woodrow Wilson is buried there, they have a moonrock from Apollo 11 (Michael Collins had attended the cathedral school) and Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan are interred there. The same earthquake that damaged the Washington Monument also sent bits of cathedral stone crashing to the ground (actually I think they fell onto the roof, but that sounds less interesting) but the gargoyle that looks like Darth Vader apparently was unharmed.
After our tour of the cathedral, we headed back to the White House. We’d seen it out the windows a few times throughout the trip, but we hadn’t been able to stop until today. Because cars are no longer allowed on Pennsylvania Avenue, our driver dropped us off a couple of blocks away. They’ve added another level of barricades, so we couldn’t get up to the wrought-iron fence (when I was a kid I used to stick my camera through the bars to get a clear picture), I guess because of the recent fence-jumpers who have made the news. Security was omnipresent to say the least.
We’d stayed at Mt. Vernon longer than usual and our Cathedral tour ran long as well, so we didn’t have time to go to the National Zoo and see the pandas. Instead, we ventured over to the Pentagon Memorial. Buses also can’t get very close to this one, so he dropped us off and we had to walk across one of the parking lots, through a tunnel (the same one J, K, and I had navigated before the Army Ten-Miler last October), and across another parking lot before reaching the memorial. It’s on a small patch of land facing the spot where the plane hit that day. The side of the Pentagon is slightly discolored from the repair–it’s easy to see where it has been rebuilt. The memorial itself has a wing-shaped bench for each person who died. They face one way if the person was a passenger on the plane, the other way if the person was killed inside the building. They’re organized by birth order and are cross-referenced with other family members to acknowledge that many families were on the plane that day. It’s a somber memorial, perhaps because the event it honors is still so new, but it’s beautiful too. Unfortunately, it was completely closed. The same kind of barricades that had blocked off icy parts of Lincoln and Jefferson blocked the entire entrance to the memorial. I spent a few minutes telling kids what I knew (they were all babies in 2001) and we returned to the bus for the drive back to Baltimore.
Our flight was scheduled for 7:50 so our drive coincided with rush-hour traffic. We took a bit of a scenic route but made it with plenty of time–the Southwest counter and the security lines were very small. Kids fanned out to get some dinner, and then the airline made an announcement that there was some kind of maintenance issue with the plane that was supposed to arrive for us. They informed us there’d be an indefinite delay. We started having the kids call their parents to tell them to check with the airline before leaving for the airport. About an hour later Southwest announced that they were bringing in a new plane for us and that they hoped to have us in the air by about 10pm. The reactions from this exhausted group of teens ranged from indifference to tears to disappearing to get more food. At some point they moved us to a different gate, and I had to walk the length of the terminal to hunt down a group of boys who had gone to get more ice cream or something.
At the new gate, our kids monopolized one corner of the gate area. I was too tired to deal with getting 44 eighth-graders to get out of the main walkway so I declared “this floor is lava–you stay over there” and that pretty much contained them. Which was good, because while I’ve never run a marathon, I’m guessing it feels a lot like I felt after four days with eighth-graders.
I got home at 2:30am and immediately fell asleep. I woke up about six hours later–not nearly long enough–and worked on unpacking. Later in the morning I figured it was time to start the detox-after-four-days-of-restaurant-food process, so I went for a four-mile run. It was slow, but not as bad as I had feared. And even after all the
marathoning walking (in winter clogs, not running shoes!) over the last four days, my feet and calves were sore but not painful. A day wearing compression socks took care of that.
Okay so maybe I didn’t complete the equivalent of a marathon, mileage-wise. But I’ll bet the percentage of people who are successful at 26.2 isn’t terribly different from the percentage of those who take large groups of teenagers halfway across the country. Both events are grueling and exhausting, and I’ll guarantee you’ll never forget either one.