March 20, 2013 - Walking up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. on March 15 was a huge reality check for Katy O'Neill.
"It all hit me then," she said. "I was like, 'This is real, this is happening.'"
What was happening for her and 37 other Brandon Middle School eighth grade students, was a hands-on social studies lesson, led by BMS teachers Steve Hendershott and Jason Sheldon.
Hendershott proposed the Washington, D.C. trip to the Brandon School Board last April and received approval. BMS students have not had a teacher-organized trip to the capital since 1995. BMS teacher Roger Brundage previously led student trips to D.C. in the summer, but the trips ended after he retired.
"I did this as a kid and I think it's a great trip to reinforce our curriculum and show why our country is so great," said Hendershott of his motivation to renew the annual trip.
All 250 eighth grade students were invited, but the $1,000 cost was each individual's responsibility. The tour was provided by World Strides, which offered fundraising ideas for students and parents, as well as some scholarships. The students left BMS March 13 and arrived back in town early March 18.
The Lincoln Memorial was deeply affecting to not only O'Neill, but many of the students, including Lauren Gaule, who said it was her favorite part of the trip.
"When we went to the Lincoln Memorial, the quotes really spoke to me and gave me inspiration to do something big in my life," said Chelsea Cooks.
The students' visit to Mt. Vernon, the home of George Washington, was an eye-opener for Cooks, who said she realized if the first U.S. president hadn't "been the type of leader he was, we wouldn't have won the Revolution… This (trip) was completely different from reading history in a textbook. It gives you a better perspective of all the things that had to be done to make this country what it is today. I felt special and lucky because I got to go—it was a great experience."
Michael Allen particularly enjoyed the first stop on the trip— Williamsburg, Va., where they toured the Jamestown Settlement, visited a silversmith and saw re-enactments that made him feel like he was back in the 1700s.
He also had a memorable moment while standing at the Lincoln Memorial and gazing across the Reflecting Pool to the Washington Monument.
"It was a beautiful sight—one of the coolest things I've ever seen," he said. "We were a lucky group to be able to do this. It explains more of what we learned because we were able to see it."
The visit to the Lincoln Memorial was just one part of a very special journey through U.S. history the group took that included the day in Williamsburg, Va. in which they toured the Jamestown Settlement (March 14), a visit to Mt. Vernon, the home of George Washington; a 2-day tour of the nation's capital, which besides the Lincoln Memorial included viewing the Korean, Vietnam, World War II, Jefferson, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Franklin D. Roosevelt memorials as well as the Washington Monument, and Capitol Hill; and a visit to Arlington National Cemetery.
At Arlington, O'Neill was one of four BMS students chosen to take part in a very special wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. To receive this honor, the students had to write an essay on why they wanted this role and why they were good candidates. O'Neill wrote about her grandfather, who fought in World War II, as well as her parents, both of whom are police officers and whom she said have taught her a lot about honor, justice, and respect.
During the ceremony, she was nervous.
"I didn't want to make a mistake," O'Neill said. "It was almost surreal to be there… It was amazing how the soldiers gave not only their lives, but their identities to protect our country… It was sad, especially when they played 'Taps.' I teared up."
It was another somber moment as the students saw the eternal flame while visiting the grave of President John F. Kennedy.
On March 17, the BMS students and teachers ended their experience with a visit to Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia before heading home.
Reflecting on the trip, O'Neill said it was a great experience, one in which she saw the struggles of Americans in history, and during which she gained closer friendships with many of her classmates.
Katerina Leskie called it a good learning opportunity, one she believes future eighth grade students should take advantage of if they can.
On March 18, several hours after the group returned, the Brandon School Board unanimously gave their support to the trip that is now being planned for next year's eighth grade. Hendershott is looking forward to it. His favorite part of this trip was the wonder and awe he saw on the faces of students—something he hopes to see on the faces of at least 100 students next year.
A parent information meeting on the 2014 Washington D.C. trip is planned for 7 p.m., April 17 at Brandon Middle School. Attend to see how to make this trip a reality for your middle school student.
Susan covers Brandon Township and Ortonville