IDEALS, ICONS AND INDEPENDENT THINKING

My 11th grade American History teacher was imperious and formidable. Carl Damson – oh, we had fun with that name outside his earshot – had taught so long that some of our parents were still intimidated by him at conferences.  Freshman and sophomore alike looked ahead to his required class as inevitable doom.  To hear our parents and predecessors tell, Mr. Damson barely tolerated the presence of students.  His notoriety stemmed from a finely-honed ability: the caustic evisceration of anyone whose performance was sub-par.

oldhhsWhen your class contribution inevitably fell short of expectations, the legendary Mr. Damson would rise up from behind his desk and stand in front of yours to deliver full measure.  In a modulated, eloquent delivery, he would remove the offending, gangrenous response you had proffered with verbal surgery.

I learned to disassociate myself from Mr. Damson, and thus appreciate the cogent brilliance from which these scathing assessments were delivered. American History in Hastings High School, definitely no Harvard Law, was nonetheless taught by our own Professor Kingsfield.  “I train your minds.  You come in here with a skull full of mush…

Looking back, I find it daunting to consider all that Mr. Damson had to undo in order to teach us. Day after day in his third floor classroom, we inhaled chalkdust and ran our fingers like Braille students over the surreptitious carvings in our desktops.  We dared not look elsewhere than at Mr. Damson.

He began with us in September like shapeless lumps of roving.  He carded the detritus from our minds, then spun facts and anecdotes in a masterful warp and weft that only a truly gifted teacher can weave.

It is Mr. Damson’s glorious fault that I have loved history in the 40 years intervening.

Image via WikipediaMr. Damson revered Philadelphia, in whose Old City I wander this morning.  It was from him that we learned what glory had emerged here.  His reverence for the product of 18 sultry summer days in 1776, and the outcome of meetings beginning in the spring of 1787, gave context, depth and perspective to the simple childhood stories about kites and cherry trees that had comprised our prior lexicon.

Mr. Damson introduced us to genius not his own, and how it spawned the country.

I circle the long block to the north of Independence Hall on foot.  I am too early yet to be admitted to see the Liberty Bell.  The setting is bisected by spring gardens in colorful bloom.  It is anchored on its lee side by a low, unassuming building.

It occurs to me that sometimes architects and planners brilliantly execute a metaphor of commemoration:  the Vietnam Veterans memorial, the elegance of the reflecting pool between Washington’s and Lincoln’s edifices, the Murrah installation in Oklahoma City.  The ordinary exterior of this building calls no particular attention to itself, preferring to co-exist with natural elements.  The simplicity is more eloquent than any man-made grandeur could hope to be.

I take my lone place among groups of Asian tourists.  The dialogue is repeated by their guides in Japanese and English.  It sounds harsh.  They’re being coached on security procedures and how long they have to spend here.  When the clock shows 8:30, we are allowed through the door at the north end of the building.  Our progress is naturally guided through a series of open room-like areas formed by panel displays.  The chronology of the Liberty Bell’s lifespan contains anecdotes with humor and pathos, artifacts with charm and keepsakes with kitsch.  The metaphor is sound.

Image via Aquistbe (Flickr)The culmination of one’s journey within is the Bell itself.  Beautifully sited to frame Independence Hall beyond in a stunning sunlit vista, the artistry of placing simple glass beyond the bell is ultimately a quiet, steady emphasis.  Out of the seemingly ordinary came the extraordinary. That liberty should be proclaimed in deed and word, and summoned by clarion call, is simply inevitable.

Mr. Damson, all those years ago, was given seeds that had been recklessly scattered.  Yet within each one of us was a kernel that could spring forth to flower.  The nourishment of inherent ideas was comprised of assembly, proclamation, dissemination, opportunity, and access.  These nutrients were abundant in our 11th grade classroom.  They were acknowledged and guaranteed right where I now stand outside, on Chestnut Street between 5th and 6th, in Philadephia.

It is a beautiful spring day to walk slowly, ponder and remember.  I take a bench among blooming trees and am joined by a young Japanese woman who has broken away from her group.  “What is this beautiful tree?” she asks.  A confused look results when I tell her it’s a flowering crab.  She takes me too literally, I fear, just as so many of Mr. Damson’s students mistook his stern countenance as ornery and mean.  Summoned back to her group by a fast-talking guide with a blue umbrella – the better to know your group, I suppose – she thanks me.

I take a photo of the words of the First Amendment carved on a marble slab with Independence Hall in the distance and send it back by phone to the people I treasure.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Within minutes I get text responses:  “Cool.”  “How awesome.”  “Oh, you lucky.”  “Amen.”  The longevity and perfection of this gift to us is affirmed with modern immediacy.

Professor Kingsfield famously exhorted his students at Harvard Law that before he was done with them, they’d be “thinking like lawyers.”  By the time I wrote my final exam in Mr. Damson’s class, he had me thinking like a patriot. That was a lifetime ago, in a simple classroom in a small, midwestern town.  Those lessons have traveled with me on this sunny, spring morning to a city where the symbols of our nation’s history reside, and I’m grateful.

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11 Responses to IDEALS, ICONS AND INDEPENDENT THINKING

  1. Patricia May 13, 2009 at 12:57 pm #

    Betsy,
    Beautiful writing here this morning in your own right. Powerful and exacting.
    I too had an 11th grade History Professor in a Midwestern High School that taught me how to learn and understand. Mr. Bixsler – I wonder if they were cut from the same mold? I could hardly wait to arrive in his class and take copious notes. He did not wish to be my friend or entertainer, rather he taught. I felt at home in his class and I could understand why my Father wanted to be in a place with religious freedom and some place that could handle his ideas on Education – thus he emigrated. We had framed copies of the US Constitution and the Canadian Bill of Rights on our walls. My Father carried a pocket constitution in his pocket.
    It was Pennsylvania where he finally got his bill passed that stated “Every child deserves an individual education” and where he began working with the Kennedy family.
    Two great teachers in the art of learning how to think – and now another.
    Great Post. Thank you for sharing.

    Patricia´s last blog post..Dawn and Release

  2. Pete May 13, 2009 at 2:30 pm #

    With the wide vocabulary in the above post, it’s hard to believe that I regularly trounce her in Scrabble such that I now have to play by myself. ;-)

    A common intellectual curiousity and genuine love of history is one of the reasons I married her.

    I, too, had a memorable history teacher in high school. She made the subject fun . . . Madonna Bartholet. I haven’t thought about her in many years. Perhaps unlike Mr. Damson, Miss Bartholet’s classes were difficult to get into. Once you took one of her classes, you always came back for more.

    She had teaching methods that were certainly outside the box and effective. In Eurpoean Studies, I was once given the task of presenting the lecture on Napolean (Took two days) and our group report on Egypt was delivered Action News style.

    But the most memorable history lesson I received was in African Studies. Miss Bartholet had several of these classes and they were all combined for a day in a school wide experiment on apartide South Africa style. We were each assigned a particular race and such things as bathrooms, water fountains and even lunch tables were restricted according to your skin color as indicated by your arm band. I was not white.

    Those of us in African Studies were to act out our racially prescribed roles. But the interesting part was that as the rest of the school discovered our little experiment, they began to play along. As they had no arm band, they assigned themselves to the white race.

    Not only was it a hands on lesson regarding racism (I doubt the white arm bands got as much out of it), but it also demonstrated that people will easily pick up norms of behavior no matter how unsavory so long as it only impacts “the other guy”.

    Pete´s last blog post..BALD EAGLE FOR ALABAMA TEA PARTY PATRIOTS

  3. Betsy Wuebker May 14, 2009 at 7:18 am #

    Hi Patricia – Thank you for the compliment, and thank you, too, for the Stumble! Isn’t it amazing the impact a strong teacher has? And isn’t it fun, as a history nerd, to finally have our day? :) My uncle carried a pocket Constitution, too. I wonder how many these days do that?

    Hello Dearest – You did not have to share the fact that I find 7 tiles so limiting as to be completely paralyzing, right? :) It must have been fun to be in Miss Bartholet’s class. I’d hesitate even now to describe Mr. Damson’s class as fun in the traditional sense, but looking back, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

  4. Kathy | Virtual Impax May 14, 2009 at 8:32 am #

    Betsy – what a beautiful and engaging tale – of a man who instilled a love of not only history but also a love of learning. I was recently reading another blog where the author was complaining that subjects such as “authenticity” and “self esteem” weren’t part of the traditional public school curriculum.

    Oh – nay – nay!!! I say it’s a shame that there aren’t more Mr. Damsons and Mr. Bixlers out there – teaching children not only HOW to learn – but WHY!

    I’m fairly certain Mr Damson expected you to learn the value of authenticity as a side “lesson” – and would be horrified to hear it proposed as a course.

    Kathy | Virtual Impax´s last blog post..It’s called S-O-C-I-A-L media for a reason…

  5. Betsy Wuebker May 14, 2009 at 2:46 pm #

    Hi Kathy – I expect Mr. Damson would be horrified at a lot of what passes for curricula these days. Somehow I think our self esteem wasn’t at issue when he made his lesson plans. Funny thing about having to teach that – it’s sort of like having to ask the price when you can’t afford the item! We may have ruined an entire generation coddling their self-esteem to the exclusion of common sense in my opinion. There was no one who needed to worry less about his personal authenticity, either, than Mr. Damson and others like him. Thanks!

  6. Cath Lawson May 15, 2009 at 7:31 am #

    Hi Betsy – It’s great that Mr Damson’s classes have had such a strong impact on you. Even though we have a royal family over here, I’ve noticed that American’s are generally far more patriotic than we are.

    And it sounds like you’re having a great time in Philadelphia. Are you on a long trip? Will you be going to other places?

  7. Betsy Wuebker May 15, 2009 at 8:43 am #

    Hi Cath – Great to see you! I’m wanting to catch up with what you’re doing these days, too! I did have a wonderful time in Philadelphia – and no, it wasn’t a long trip at all – not even two full days. I’ve been back for a couple of weeks, but had a bit of writer’s block and acclimating to some changes in my work life since. It’s all good. :)

    We flew in to Philadelphia on a Friday, then drove to Atlantic City for some business training over the weekend, and then drove back to Philly to catch return flights. My next post is going to be about the special place we visited before we took off in our rental car for New Jersey. It was so meaningful, I went back there again after my Monday morning. I’m just hoping I’m doing it all justice. Thanks.

  8. Jannie Funster May 16, 2009 at 7:30 pm #

    I want to devour history for breakfast, lunch and dinner of every day!!

    I breathe in the History Channel.

    Ours was Mr. Creary. He was a big fan of verbal surgery too.

    The first day of class in Grade 11 he questioned us – no DRILLED us, for the entire class as to the definition of “history”‘ until finally 1 minute before the bell he let it slide that history is INTERPRETATION.

    I’ve never forgotten it.

    And never will.

    Especially in these times. Interpretation.

    God bless!

    Jannie Funster´s last blog post..Folks, I couldn’t make these up if I tried! (and song video coming next post, I hope.)

  9. Betsy Wuebker May 19, 2009 at 2:55 pm #

    Hi Jannie – We’re History Channel regulars, too, and National Geographic. Last night we watched the one about George Washington, and lo and behold if there wasn’t a part about his house on this square, and his escaped slaves, which I read about on the archeological dig area. I felt so in the know! And you and Mr. Creary are right about INTERPRETATION. You should see the pamphlet I got at Valley Forge, downplaying the misery part and up-playing other stuff. Oops, I’m giving away a future post. :D

  10. Chris January 2, 2012 at 6:53 pm #

    Just seeing Mr. Damson’s name transported me back to history class. Of course at that time in my life I had no clue that teachers were actually humans but I found him to be both intimidating and frightening. I sat in the front and he called on me a lot. It was scary!

    Certainly he’d be touched and delighted to read your tribute. I know I was.

    Happy New Year!
    Chris has an awesome blog post here: An Honest MistakeMy Profile

    • Betsy Wuebker January 2, 2012 at 8:48 pm #

      Hi Chris – I don’t remember if we were in his class together, but I do remember I sat in the third row back near the windows, as if I dared look outside. I wonder if he meant to be intimidating? I’m glad you think he’d have appreciated this piece. He certainly made a huge impact on my interests to this day. Thanks.

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