Mary Kate Henry (mother of Caitlin ’21, Julia ’24, and Sarah ’24)

The faces in the picture say it all.  The tall young girl in jeans and braids is standing in front of the old man wearing a World War II cap and shirt.  They are engaged in conversation.

The man is a World War II veteran, and the young girl is my daughter, one of 33 8th graders fortunate enough to travel to New Orleans and spend time at the National WWII Museum there.  The trip came about through the work of Middle School teacher Lindsay Bowman, who was awarded a grant by DSF Charitable Foundation (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) that underwrote most of its expense.  One of the main purposes of the grant was to give students the opportunity to learn about World War II not just from history books but also from artifacts, hands-on exhibits, and the men and women who participated in the war effort.

These students were not strangers to learning about World War II through various mediums.  Over the past two years, they have read both fiction and nonfiction about that period, including “Lily’s Crossing” and “The Diary of Anne Frank.”  They have attended a stage production of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” heard a Holocaust survivor speak of her harrowing experiences in a Nazi concentration camp, and visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

This trip, however, took experiential learning to a new level.  For two days, students were immersed in World War II in a way that books and even other sources do not allow.  Some students have grandfathers who fought in World War II, so they may have had more first-hand exposure to that event.  Yet many grandparents, particularly men from that generation, may be reluctant to share personal experiences in the war with their grandchildren.  This trip gave all students an eyewitness view of history from actual participants who were eager to share their stories.

There is no substitute for living history.  The students had an extraordinary opportunity to see, hear, and feel what people in our country and the rest of the world experienced 70 years ago.  Sadly, that window of opportunity is fast closing because of the advanced age of World War II veterans.  Although their stories may be preserved digitally, they will not be here to talk personally, answer students’ questions, and pose for pictures.  The time to do that is now, and students from Harrisburg Academy’s 8th grade class were lucky enough to be able to seize that moment.

When the plane touches down, I do not expect that the first thing my daughter will talk about is World War II.  I expect to hear about the French Quarter, the late nights, and the fun she had.  However, we will keep the picture of the old man and young girl, arms linked, bridging two periods of history.  And when she looks back at this experience in 10 years, I hope that she remembers the beignets at Café du Monde and the laughter with friends, but most of all, the privilege of embracing and being embraced by history.

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