Earlier this month, I joined the other WCI students taking Grade 11 American history on a bus destined for that country’s seat of power, Washington, D.C. After a solid day of driving, periodically broken up by rest stops at fast food metropolises and festively decorated malls, we finally arrived in rural Pennsylvania for the first leg of our trip.
Thursday, 19 November – Gettysburg, Pennsylvania
Continuing the age-old tradition of substantial rain at the Gettysburg National Military Park (jokingly blamed on the presence of Mr. Witmer), this year’s group was forced to trudge through the muddy battlefield. The gloomy atmosphere, dampened further by the low-hanging fog, only enhanced the exploration of the Civil War monuments, such as the Monument to the 140th New York Infantry (above), that act as grim reminders of America’s bloody past.
Washington, District of Columbia
We left Pennsylvania for the national capital, and Washington’s neo-Classical city centre welcomed us, the imposing architecture providing a stone grey complement to the brewing clouds above. Stopping briefly to pay tribute at the World War II Memorial, we arrived at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, where we were given time to uncover some of the country’s treasures, including Abraham Lincoln’s iconic hat and Dorothy’s ruby slippers from the Wizard of Oz.
The day was completed with a visit to the National Archives (above), home to the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. Protected by bulletproof glass and armed guards, this American pilgrimage site is unlike anything here at home.
As we made our way back to the bus at the end of the day, the skies cleared and exploded into a sea of orange, pink, and purple. In the distance, the Washington Monument (above right) was silhouetted against the vibrant clouds as we strolled along the thoroughly American, Constitution Ave. (above left). We looked up at the view, and there was a growing sense of the hope and freedom the people of America had been searching for for so long ago, the ideals on which the country had ultimately been built.
Just in time for dinner, we rolled into Alexandria, Virginia (above), a picturesque Southern city emanating antebellum charm. Christmas lights twinkled in the trees, creating a canopy of electric stars over the main street, where upscale restaurants and quirky boutiques claim an address. With almost three hours to kill, the class split up into smaller groups, ducking in and out of incandescent store fronts and taking over the many ice cream parlours along the street.
Friday, 20 November – Arlington, Virginia
The following day began with a visit to Arlington National Cemetery, the final resting place for more than 14,000 veterans. Paths, lined with mature trees shedding leaves of red and yellow, weave their way through the endless landscape of white gravestones. Some of the names are those of lieutenant generals and some are those of privates. Some ended their service in the Civil War and some in the Iraq War, but all are buried together on the acres of land leading to General Robert E. Lee’s plantation.
In the shadow of the mansion, President John F. Kennedy’s eternal flame burns next to his grave as well as his wife’s, Jacqueline’s, and only a few feet away lies his brother Robert Kennedy’s grave: the family graves overlook the Washington skyline. The Potomac River below acts as a sobering barrier between the two cities: on one bank sits Arlington, where masses of people who come from far and wide share in the grief and pain caused by war, and on the other lies the nation’s capital, where the government indulges America’s desire to wage yet another war, this time against ISIS.
Washington, District of Columbia
Returning to Washington, we had lunch at the National Gallery of Art before continuing on to the U.S. Capitol Building (above), which serves as the location of the United States Congress. Though under layers of scaffolding inside and out for refurbishment, the grandeur of the building was undeniable as we retraced the steps of presidents past.
The afternoon ended with free time in the National Gallery of Art, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum, or the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History.
At night, we visited six of Washington’s many memorials to foreign wars and past leaders. The tributes to Presidents Thomas Jefferson (above left) and Abraham Lincoln (above right) are great stone structures that house towering statues of the two men who embody dignity and determination.
The memorials to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War appeared to be aimed towards educating the thousands of daily visitors; each is unique, yet each sends a message of the country’s past hardships that it is always able to overcome.
The most moving of all the memorials was that of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (above). Depicting the famed words from his speech, I’ve Been to the Mountaintop, the speech describes King emerging from the mountainside, his expression firm and comforting as he looks down on a country that has come so far on racial tension, yet still has so far to go.
Many who go on the annual American history trip to Washington, D.C. come home saying that it is one of the best memories from their time at WCI. Not only does one come away with an enriched understanding of our nation’s neighbour, but a newfound knowledge of human nature and the struggles of humankind to establish order and values in this chaotic world.
As a dual citizen of Canada and the U.S., when I watch the news and see yet another school shooting or racial riot, it is difficult to feel any pride in my American citizenship and blood. Gazing out of the bus’s window at Washington D.C.’s impressive cityscape, however, instils a feeling of power and hope unlike any other city in the world has for me.
The U.S. is a complicated, and still fairly young, country that has served as a setting for both incredible tragedy and empowering enlightenment. In spite of all of its mistakes and flaws, everyone who visits it is inspired by the dreamers who fought for liberty and justice so many centuries ago and continue to fight to this day for that same dream. And for that, no matter what, I will always be proud.