Sunday, June 5, 2011


Every year, one of the highlights of the year is our all-8th-grade reenactment of Pickett's Charge, Lee's fateful gambit (wow, I've never actually used the word gambit before) that was the turning point of the battle of Gettysburg, and hence, many argue, of the war itself. My class takes the role of the Confederates against my colleague's Union army. (We lose every year.)

The night before, our soldiers write a rather prescient letter home after two indecisive days at Gettysburg and lay out their uniform for tomorrow: a gray hoodie or t-shirt. On the day of, they carefully secure the letter on their persons--in case they die-- and mentally prepare for battle by reading Joy Hakim's account.

General Lee, resplendent in uniform (handmade without a pattern by our talented financial secretary) and astride his trusty steed, Traveler (shown in the photo of a former student visiting me), along with General Pickett, lines up with his soldiers, while a replica of the Bonnie Blue Flag purchased by my colleague's mom and another replica of the more familiar Confederate flag (handsewn by a former student) snap in the breeze. A drummer beats out a marching cadence and we begin to sing the song we've earlier learned: "We are a band of brothers/Native to the soil/Fighting for the property/We gained by honest toil..." Our soldiers have gray slouch hats, thanks to generous ancestors, and off we march, having learned the week before how to march, halt, stand at ease, stand at attention, right, left, and about face. (It was beyond scary the first time I attempted to teach them to march outside the confines of the bungalow, but it usually is a super fun and wonderful day.)

As we march down the hallway, random 6th and 7th graders pop out of windows and wave (or shout) at us, but we are intent on keeping time and the soldiers are disciplined.

We reach Cemetery Hill in time to hear a few trumpet players from the local high school wrap up "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." We see the Angle, a low wall and the target of the attack, represented by a row of inverted garbage cans and butcher paper, protecting Mr. F's blue-garbed soldiers, Old Glory held high, General Meade proudly riding his horse. General Meade is also uniformed, thanks to our talented financial secretary. The Confederates swing into position, watching for the student who is holding up huge numbers which signify what actions they are to take as I begin a voice over of the battle from Interact's Civil War unit (I got the idea and the script from this unit and it has evolved into this big epic day with the help of Mr. F and Mr. T.). The sounds of battle (from the sound track of the war film Glory) are piped in as soldiers begin to be "shot", literally when their number is up, raised by the student on the hill. And when number ten is raised, the kids in gray t-shirts--er, Pickett's regiment--charge up the hill to engage in hand-to-hand combat.

And I mean it. They play Rock-Paper-Scissors to determine who lives and who dies in an engagement, but with this twist: Confederates must win twice in a row while Union soldiers need win only once. This mathematically ensures the slaughter of the Confederates that actually occurred that day. (My idea, and I am inordinately proud of it!)

Soldiers get to die as dramatically as they wish, as long as they keep in mind the B-5 Three Commandments:
1) Thou shalt not damage a prop.
2) Thou shalt not harm another person.
3) Thou shalt not harm thyself.

Clara Barton, reincarnated as an 8th grade girl and wearing a dress handsewn by that genius in the financial office, braves the bullets with two stretcher bearers wearing lab coats swiped from the science department, evacuating the smaller wounded soldiers to safety. A few years we had a dry ice machine creating battle smoke. Whoa...

When number eleven is raised and the drum beats a retreat tattoo, the remaining Confederates straggle to the "woods" where their distraught generals have watched the destruction of the regiment. And then it's over. But not yet.

Mr. F. has the "survivors" doff their hats, and as we survey the "carnage," he explains the meaning of Memorial Day and the significance of the battle we commemorated. And then, slowly, sweetly, Taps is played by the visiting trumpet players. I'm not gonna hide it: sometimes a tear slips out and rolls down my face.

Then Mr. F has the "dead" rise and rejoin the surviving Confederates. Our sides salute and huzzah each other for valiance, and then Mr. Lincoln comes out to dedicate the field as a final resting place to those who here gave their lives that the United States might live. It would be more impressive if we had a tall skinny middle aged man instead of our young female helper, but she reads it beautifully and wears a black jacket and top hat to good effect.

We march back to HQ, my bungalow, drop off the props and spray them with Oust for the next period, and then watch a five minute clip of the war film Gettysburg so the students can see the reality of what they were portraying.

It's a long day for us teachers (no prep, and even lunch is spent feeding our high school guests), but one they remember fondly, I hope. This year we had all the mobile special education students marching (the rest cheered from wheelchairs on the sidelines or waved Union flags), and it was such an honor for us all to include them. S. is a favorite--he is a diminutive fellow with long hair, glasses, and fondness for acting cool. Here is a shot of him.

I love my job.


  1. Absolutely amazing post from an amazing teacher(s)! Do not go gently, please keep inspiring me.

  2. Thanks so much! (Can't go for a while, gently or otherwise, and am glad to stay for a while, at any rate)