A Retrospective of Writing Wrongs 2014: Our Three-Day Adventure in Washington, D.C.
In his Alice books, Lewis Carroll invites us all, even as children, to question the absoluteness of size. Myself, I’ve studied no particle physics, string theory, or relativity, but I’d wager that each of us who has (1) modeled both an atom and the solar system in a science class, (2) read Madeleine L’Engle (or had really any brush with science fiction), or merely (3) seen Men in Black, is somehow aware of the paradox and relativity of size:
Though we are each infinitesimally small in the known universe, we are each in ourselves a vast universe of thought and matter.
The medal given to the Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem (Holocaust Memorial / Jerusalem) says, “Whosoever saves a single life, saves an entire universe” (Mishnah, Sanhedrin 4:5). This message echoes here in the Qur’an.
So how does one (if one were, say, terminally ill) measure a single life? We are each proportionally insignificant, yet simultaneously vast.
And we are, increasingly, a species preoccupied by measure, comparison, and competition, though we know not the true measure – especially in the sense that measure means value – of anything. All but the most empirical assessments (time, temperature, L x W x D) are relative, both contingent upon our personal values and limited, just as we each are: bound by time and place and experience.
I am sometimes stunned by how uncertain is our knowledge and how incomplete is our comprehension of the meaning and reach of our behaviors. Though each choice occurs as a single point in time, each is paradoxically infinite in its potential ramification.
This paradox exists in the mundane as well as the profound: winning high office may ultimately accomplish less than bringing water to someone thirsting or aid to someone in need. The machinations of powerful people and entities may immediately impact but subsequently fade: the work of a preeminent lawyer’s lifetime might be undone by one case overturned or the tenure of a powerful politician’s career ended by a handful of votes. Yet the love of an obscure father for his child or a small kindness from a stranger may have far-reaching impact that is never recognized or attributed.
I long ago made peace with these paradoxes. I accepted my place as a duly limited person living a relatively short time on a tiny rock in space. But I never believed this made me small. I became inexplicably assured that I matter. And that you matter. That we are each beyond measure and that society’s attempt to value people and our temporal accomplishments via wealth and fame and standardized tests is at its best, illusory, and at its worst, ludicrous.
I agree with Jim Carrey on this premise regarding the inability of worldly gain to bring fulfillment; however, I also have faith that our most trivial acts and choices can be far-reaching and that our most commonplace choices can be more powerful and important than we will ever know.
During my two decades of teaching, I was accused of lacking personal ambition. On the contrary: I had a different kind of ambition – ambition based on my own concepts of power, influence, and success.
I always used Dead Poets Society when teaching American Lit., not only to illustrate the messages of the Transcendentalists, but also to address the human need (emergent in virtually all my teenage students) to navigate a meaningful life. It remained a favorite for two decades. Today, I remember the Whitman poem Oh Me! Oh Life! so well-utilized in the film.
The speaker faces the basic human quest for significance, posing the question as,
and answering with the prescription,
When I was first diagnosed with ALS, I focused on how my verse was being truncated – how I would never have my second career in law and policy. But this opportunity to fundraise for and to execute this trip reminded me of all I might still accomplish to extend my contribution – help me focus on what I can do.
The experience was stunningly powerful, from the grandeur of the monuments to the power of the museums, to the wonderful food, accommodations, and poetry. It all coalesced in almost miraculous ways. For example, the current National Archivist formerly oversaw the Duke libraries and discovered our story in the Durham Herald-Sun. A Sacrificial Poet who works with our poetry club connected us with a Graffiti DC champion poet whose father owns a Durham, NC restaurant where some of the students had eaten. Serendipity reigned. Disparate donors, supporters, hosts, and participants meshed in ways I could not have envisioned, and seeing the confluence was wonderfully affirming. The lessons, the laughter, and the relationships of this experience transcend both me and my illness; they will outlive me. It turned out, thankfully, to be not really about me at all, and that was my goal – to name inequities, to elevate tolerance, and to empower these students.
I give deepest thanks to all who helped. How comforting to be deteriorating with ALS yet feel this lucky. I always told God that I would make a lousy Job; I feel like he’s winking at me – making dying young not only palatable, but strangely lovely. Like the religious ideas of strength in weakness and wisdom in foolishness, the paradox of living while dying embodies a strange and palliative beauty.
A travelogue and photos follow, but here and here are media pieces containing testimonies from students; they scratch the surface of how meaningful this opportunity was. The Karen students’ reflections about how they connect the horrors of the Holocaust to the horrors that their ethnic group endured in Burma was perhaps the most sobering and humbling response. Another undocumented student tearfully shared the humiliating treatment that she and her brother-in-law endured during a traffic stop. Several students have worn their jewelry – dogtags, stars of David, and bracelets – from the moment we left the museum shop through their graduation. And overheard at Arlington National Cemetery, a student who had never been out of the Triangle area said to her peers in awe, “Y’all look! All these people died for us.”
Yes, though it was a whirlwind of logistics and activity, I have no doubt that this trip drastically expanded the verse of my life – that the memories and lessons from this trip will enrich and empower the participants beyond measure.
Writing Wrongs 2014: A Travelogue:
Most of the students had never visited D.C. – and none of us had visited like this. Certainly no group has ever experienced a richer 45 hours in our nation’s capital.
Students and staff are now composing, revising, and submitting for publication their written reflections. To all who contributed to Writing Wrongs 2014, a wholly donor-funded trip, I hope you will glean from what follows a sense that you contributed to something worthwhile and powerful.
Thursday afternoon, May 29th, our group visited the World War II, Lincoln, Korean War, MLK, and FDR memorials. Despite the rain, we made the tour in excellent time and in reasonably high spirits. We each saw something new, even I who lived in D.C. my 2L summer of law school.
The Korean War Memorial seemed somehow more somber and realistic in the rain. The haunting likenesses of U.S. soldiers of different races fighting side by side was moving and beautiful; a wonderful message about brotherhood and unity.
Similarly, the MLK Memorial seemed more weighty and powerful in the overcast weather. The Mountains of Injustice and the Stone of Hope stood unmoved by the rivulets of water on their facades.
I was able to read each of the 14 quotations on the Inscription Wall and explain each to one of my ESL students. After I discussed the third or fourth quotation, one of my African-American students who had been walking along silently with us asked incredulously as he looked at the huge inscriptions, “Ms. Connell, Did MLK say all these?” It was wonderful to tell him yes, and to speak of Dr. King’s leadership in matters beyond racial inequity and of his statesmanship in contexts beyond his “I Have a Dream” speech.
It was my first time visiting the MLK and FDR memorials, and it seemed fitting: this was my first time using a wheelchair.
Thursday night, we dined at the 14th & V location of Busboys and Poets where my students saw a mural full of people who looked like them:
We enjoyed the spoken-word poetry of some of our nation’s finest poetry performers, George “G” Yamazawa (“unforgettable” on the power of identity and ethnic pride), Elizabeth Acevedo (on resisting assimilation and taking pride in one’s heritage . . . and one’s “Hair“) and Rudy Francisco (on personal courage and avoiding regret). Students and staff alike were smitten. After their powerful messages about identity, race, and tolerance, we could have gone home satisfied . . . forever enriched.
The students got to talk and take photos with the stars of the night who, once again, looked like them – shared experiences with them – and were at the center. Here is our goofy shot (I took the “goofy” part to heart more than most) after the performance:
Friday morning, we were special guests of National Archivist David Ferriero for private viewings of the Nuremberg Laws, a Nazi art “look book,” the founding documents in the famous rotunda of the National Archives, and, in the David M. Rubenstein Gallery’s Records of Rights, a 1297 copy of the Magna Carta. As we entered and exited the special event entrance, we crossed a floor medallion embossed with the phrase “Littera Scripta Manet”: loosely translated, “The written word endures.” Apropos for a venture designed to inspire written expression.
Photographs below courtesy of The National Archives/Jeff Reed, photographer
Following our visit to the National Archives, from 10:00 A.M. to 4:00 P.M. we were treated to what may be the most generous and solicitous treatment ever given a tour group at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. The museum was, as ever, a place of power and truth that transcends words or lessons.
One of the many kindnesses they showed our group was providing in-house photography of our visit. The following shots inside the museum are courtesy of the USHMM:
After a tour led by docent guides, an honor in itself, we enjoyed a debriefing that included the responsibility exercise. We then explored items of interest & visited the museum shop. After a catered lunch, we were shown artifacts by a conservator & treated to a talk about how artifacts are shared, preserved, & displayed. This behind-the-scenes experience was intriguing. Did you know that artifacts on loan from European facilities must return every five years? That the newly installed barracks from Auschwitz brought insects that threatened all the wood and paper in the museum and had to be treated by isolating them and raising their temperature to 120 degrees for six hours? That there are specialized conservators for different materials? That you can wash a document?
(L) I explained to Min Thu and Eh Kaw Mu, two refugees from Burma, the responsibility of each generation to keep memory alive. (Below L) Eve Vongchucherd explains an exhibit to Day Nyar Wah, a Karen refugee who identified with the Jews. (Below R) Savannah Cox studies the faces of Eishishok in the Tower of Faces.
(Photos courtesy of the USHMM/Miriam Lomaskin)
After lunch, we were taken through the current temporary exhibit, Some Were Neighbors, Collaboration and Complicity in the Holocaust, by excellent guides, including the 92-year-old powerhouse, Margit Miessner. The photographs, all taken by USHMM photographers in another stunning act of generosity, speak for themselves.
Images from the afternoon:
(L) James Flemming & Warren Marcos lead students & staff in the Responsibility Exercise. We had a spirited & extended debate about whether a German worker in a Zyklon B factory, knowing the gas canisters were used to execute Jews, was minimally or significantly responsible for the Holocaust. There was no answer, only the question for us all: “What will you do?” When you see intolerance or discrimination, what will you do. Accept it? Contribute to it? Or confront and resist it?
(R) Closing remarks after a remarkable day.
Photos courtesy of USHMM
(Above L) with Miriam Lomaskin, USHMM photographer who commemorated our visit with these beautiful images. (Above R) With James, Emily, and Jesse, hosts extraordinaire.
After the museum visit, we returned to the hospitable and accommodating (and quite hip) W Hotel (formerly The Washington) where our group visited the renowned POV lounge and terrace for photographs of the White House and the Washington Monument. We enjoyed dinner Friday night just a block away at The Old Ebbitt Grill where students and staff took photographs together and and even sang impromptu a cappella.
To view many more candids and videos of all participants, visit our Shutterfly.com share page.
Saturday morning, we took photographs in front of the Ellipse of the White House, visited the hallowed ground of Arlington National Cemetery to view the Eternal Flame at President Kennedy’s grave site, and witnessed the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns. Before leaving D.C. we even made a quick stop at the Marine Memorial depicting the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima. (Photos available here.)
Thank you to all who participated, publicized, promoted, donated, or encouraged.
I can tell you exactly how much we spent, how long we stayed, and the hours we kept. But the lessons, the kindnesses, the impact – they were all immeasurable.