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.
When 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.
Mr. 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.
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.
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.
- Morning in Philadelphia (passingthru.com)
- Philadelphia’s Historic District: More Than We Expected (fromdatestodiapers.com)