The day I met Abraham Lincoln, and the field trip that changed my life

I worry that in an era of stressed resources for schools and increased emphasis on uniform academic testing, field trips might fall victim to slashed budgets and school reform. As I saw, they can spark critical thinking better than conventional classroom instruction.

Seth Perlman/AP/File
School students enter the 'White House' as a life-size Abraham Lincoln replica stands outside, while touring the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Ill. Feb. 10, 2012.

It’s field trip season across America – the time when teachers and students cap off their school year with brief excursions to nearby museums, parks, theaters, or historical sites. This has me thinking of a field trip I took more than four decades ago that changed my life – and yielded a lesson that today’s education leaders might do well to remember.

I’m talking about the day in 1971 when I boarded a bus, traveled some 20 miles from my first-grade classroom, and met Abraham Lincoln, 16th president of the United States.

The very idea of the trip was a total surprise to me. I’d been out of school sick the week before, and so had been absent when permission slips and the $1 travel fee were collected from interested students. When the morning departure for our trip to see a historical play was announced, my name wasn’t on the list of participating students.

The wisdom of Sister Albertine

Not to worry. Sister Albertine, my teacher, produced a single bill from her purse, paid my fee, and somehow finessed the missing documentation. She was sure the outing would benefit me, so she shooed me onto the school bus for the short drive up the road.

Little did she know how that outing would change me. 

About the play, I remember almost nothing at all, except for a short scene in which a gangly actor dressed in frontier garb picked up a smaller man, tossed him casually above his head, then twirled him as blithely as one would a baton at a halftime show.

Lincoln the pioneer

The smiling giant performing this nifty trick had been introduced as Lincoln, although he sported no beard or stovepipe hat. This was the Honest Abe of young adulthood, a strapping pioneer who apparently could hold his own in wrestling as well as rhetoric. The Young Lincoln scene might have involved some dramatic embellishment, but it revealed to me a larger truth. 

Lincoln was more than a solemn figure who wore odd clothes and a strange beard and marched through another century saying grand and important things. He’d also been a scrapper with a sense of humor, big dreams, and a gift for vivid physical gestures. Lincoln wasn’t merely an icon, in other words, but a human being.

If this were true of Lincoln, or so I gathered, then it must also be true of those other characters of the distant past – George Washington, Mark Twain, Thomas Edison. I was grasping all this through intuition rather than a clear line of argument; as a 6-year-old, after all, I didn’t have clear words for the new insights pricking my brain. 

Real people sorting out their lives

But from that day, I came to see history not as a series of dates and wars, great speeches and big inventions, but the story of real people sorting out their lives – just as I was trying to do in a grade-school classroom in small-town Louisiana.

That sense of the past as a chronicle of real people experiencing both the joys and hardships of life, sometimes complicated, often messy, gave it the freshness of news to me. 

It eventually inspired me to minor in history in college, then use what I’d learned in my career as a journalist. Maybe I’d have discovered these truths without that field trip, but an unexpected meeting with Lincoln definitely helped send me on my way.

The key thing to remember here, I suppose, is that a field trip probably contemplated by the grown-ups as simply a pleasant add-on taught me a lesson more important than many of the ones I’d been given in the classroom.

I worry, in an era of stressed resources for schools and increased emphasis on uniform academic testing, that these kinds of field trips might be a casualty of belt-tightening and school reform. Although we tend to regard field trips as icing on the cake, they can sometimes spark critical thinking more dramatically than conventional classroom instruction.

That’s the thing about field trips. They unfold a short distance from school, but can start journeys that last a lifetime.

Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”

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