Memorial Day has never been very high on my hierarchy of holidays. Mostly it has marked the end of school year and the semi-official opening of summer. As time has drifted on it has been more of an inconvenience than an occasion for celebration— no mail or garbage collection, the banks are closed.
But this Memorial Day turned out to be rather accidentally special. I watched again Ken Burns’ documentary, The Address. The Address follows the boys of Greenwood School in Putney, Vermont, as they learn the Gettysburg Address, a thirty-five year tradition at the school. Greenwood is a boarding school for adolescent boys who have “complex learning profiles.” In other words, boys with problems. Over four months or so the boys and the staff disassemble President Lincoln’s iconic speech, breaking it down by phrase and word, all so they can put on their good jackets and recite it from memory at a formal ceremony in front of their families and friends and win a coveted Greenwood Coin that will forever prove they did it.
I was totally swept up in the competition and the setbacks, completely won over by these vulnerable, adorable, exasperating young boys and their struggle. I wept with their parents when they stood before them and succeeded.
I’ve always loved the Gettysburg Address. When I despair for my country (and who doesn’t these days?) I think again of what dismal prospects it faced then. Fifty thousand men were lost at the Battle of Gettysburg and the democratic experiment that was the United States was in grave danger of failing.
About sixty-five years ago, I, too, memorized the Gettysburg Address, but now I could not get past the first paragraph. And so I resolved to do it again. I broke it down phrase by phrase just as the Greenwood boys had done, called on my fading executive skills, practiced before my animals. And that’s how I spent Memorial Day 2014. It was the best one I’ve had in years. I challenge you to do the same. Here it is:
Fourscore and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here. But it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.
It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave their last full measure of devotion; that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom; and that the government of the people, by the people and for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Coming of Age by Rosemary Rawson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.