Happy Birthday America, Part 4

Written by Tony Mussari
Edited by Kitch Loftus-Mussari
Copyright 2012, Mussari-Loftus Associates, LTD
The Face of America Project
All Rights Reserved

The genius of the United States is not best or most in its executives or legislatures, nor in its ambassadors or authors or college presidents, or churches, or parlors, nor even in its newspapers or inventors, but always most in its common people.Sinclair Lewis

Doing the Right Thing

There are 90,000 local school board members in America. They govern 13,809 school districts serving 50 million public school students. In my opinion, being an effective school board member is one of the most important, but difficult, jobs in the country. I know whereof I speak. In another lifetime, I served on a board of education for almost ten years.

On June 20, the Board of Education in North Plainfield, New Jersey, held its monthly meeting. One of the agenda items was a report about our Gettysburg project.

Organized by Tom Mazur, the district’s Supervisor for Performing Arts, the board agreed to listen to reports from the students who are involve in the project. They also agreed to permit us to record the reports for possible inclusion in our documentary about their visit to Gettysburg.

Of the ten students who went to Gettysburg, six attended the meeting and one parent. What was intended to be a brief, 10 minute report turned out to be a 40 minute testimonial to the value of experiential learning.

One by one, the students were introduced by Mr. Mazur. Then they calmly took their place in the center of the room, and they spoke with conviction about the things they experienced, the lessons they learned and the ways the trip will impact them for the rest of their life.

Without giving away the substance of what was said (that will be presented in our documentary) I would like to summarize some of the most compelling comments.

Sophomore Adrian Guerrero told the board members he took this opportunity very seriously. For him, it wasn’t a game or just another field trip. It was an opportunity to learn life lessons that will help him for the rest of his life.

Another sophomore Mark Havrilla will join the military after he graduates. He talked convincingly about the examples of service to country he learned at Gettysburg.

Adriana Miranda stood in front of the board with a hand-made sign. The most important words on her sign read “Gettysburg Family.” She wanted the board members to know that ten students went to Gettysburg as individuals. They left the national military park as a family tied together by what they experienced there.

Max Torres is a successful athlete. Next year he will continue his education at Rutgers University. For Max, the Gettysburg experience was an invaluable lesson in American history.

David Havrilla was most impressed with the living history presentations. He will never forget meeting General & Mrs. Robert E. Lee and President Abraham Lincoln.

For Jalynn Rivera, Gettysburg was an experience in growth. development and teamwork that will make her a better person. Jalynn sees the Gettysburg project through the eyes of a poet, and the poem she wrote about her Gettysburg experience touched the hearts of everyone in the room.

When I asked the student representative to the Board of Education what she thought about the reports, Anwar Yamna, a senior who earned a scholarship to attend Harvard University and one of the most respected students in the senior class, answered without equivocation:

“I wish I had been able to go. It sounds like a wonderful, experience.

Watching these students through the viewfinder of my camera and listening to their comments, the words of Horace Mann came to mind:

Education is the great equalizer of the conditions of men, the balance-wheel of the social machinery.

Several members of the Board of Education asked the students wonderful questions that kept the discussion going. The Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Marilyn Birnbaum, was very complimentary in her comments. The Assistant Superintendent, Dr. Robert Rich, did not mince words when he told the students and everyone in the room this is an excellent example of why teaching students to pass standardized exams is not the best measure of learning.

One of the board members, Tom Kasper, was very taken by the breath, depth and scope of the student reports. For him and the other members of the board, it was an unique moment of affirmation that their long hours of service are not in vain. It put the emphasis on learning where it should be, the students and their needs.

In that board room in North Plainfield, on that night, I saw a wonderful collage of the Face of America on its best day. The people assembled in the room provided a portrait of America’s tomorrow today. The ideas expressed and the transformations recorded by the students themselves made it crystal clear why America’s future will be shaped in the classrooms of today.

On this, America’s birthday, It would be wise for all of us to remember the prophetic words of Senator Claiborne Pell:

The strength of the United States is not in the gold at Fort Knox or the weapons of mass destruction that we have, but the sum total of the education and the character of our people.

Happy Birthday America

(To be continued)

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