ASSUMPTION — Teaching middle school students a historical perspective isn't always easy, but Central A&M teacher Tricia Koonce knows that seeing history in person is a good start.
Every year, she chaperones the middle school trip, which alternates destinations between New York City and Washington, D.C. The idea is twofold, she said: to give the kids a wider worldview and travel outside their comfortable hometown, and to provide a perspective on history and world events that are happening all around them.
Living in a small town and going to school with mostly the same classmates from kindergarten through high school, it would be easy for students to miss out on that and would make it a little tougher to adjust when they grow up and go to college and work outside their comfort zone. Seeing Washington, in particular, helps the students appreciate history more when they study it more in depth in high school, because they'll have seen in person the things they will see again in photos in their textbooks.
“It does give you perspective,” said Cody Sloan, an eighth-grader. “History will be more real to me now.”
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum was among the places the students visited this year on their trip to Washington, D.C., in June.
“The shoes is the first thing I think of,” said Madison Hunter, who is a freshman at Central A&M High School this year.
The display she referred to is shoes of all sizes and shapes, taken from Jewish prisoners who were doomed to die. Knowing that people of all ages were included in that number, and seeing the shoes they wore in person, are entirely different things, Madison said, especially when she noticed that many of the shoes obviously belonged to children.
Most of the students have yet to study the Holocaust in-depth in school, and some were only aware that Germany built concentration camps in an attempt to exterminate the Jewish people. At the entrance to the museum, visitors are issued ID cards, with the names and history of specific victims of the Holocaust and that person's ultimate fate, if it's known.
“It was hard to see what people went through,” said Marissa Snearly, an eighth-grader.
Above the shoes display are these words by Yiddish poet Moses Schulstein:
“We are the shoes, we are the last witnesses. We are shoes from grandchildren and grandfathers from Prague, Paris and Amsterdam, and because we are only made of fabric and leather and not of blood and flesh, each one of us avoided the hellfire.”
Watching the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns was sobering for many of the students as well. No one had to tell them to fall silent. The atmosphere and dignity of the site did that.
“I really wanted to see what was there and what you could learn about everything that was there (in Washington),” said Makenzie Smith, an eighth-grader. “My favorite was the Arlington (National) Cemetery and the changing of the guard.”
Rainey Mitsdarffer has relatives who have served in the military, and Arlington is her most vivid memory of the trip as well. “Most of them died in World War II, and that was really touching for me, to see the (graves of) people who died for our country.”
One especially sobering visit was the the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, where the students took a rubbing of the name of Capt. Joe Smith, whose remains were recently returned to his hometown of Assumption and honored with a parade and memorial services.
Smith was a fighter pilot who was shot down in Cambodia in April 1971. The students took the rubbing and when they brought it home, presented it to the Assumption Veterans of Foreign Wars post, which has a display dedicated to Smith.
Seeing Washington was not like other "tourist" destinations, Cody Sloan said.
“Everyone was solemn and somber at all the memorials,” he said. “Most of them knew it was not a place where you go to have fun, but that people had risked their lives so that you could have your freedoms. A lot of people knew it was not something to mess around at.”