Felice Belman: For kids, Gettysburg Address project is life-changing
‘Four score and seven years ago . . .”
Most of us recognize those six words as the opening to Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. But how many of us know the rest of it? How many of us truly know or remember what the words mean? How many of us have committed it to heart?
My nephew Henry, for one.
Earlier this month Henry, a tall 14-year-old who bears a strange likeness to Lincoln when dressed in a top hat, beard and long dark coat, participated in the “Learn the Address” national competition held in Putney, Vt. To get there, he had to compete against other kids from his middle school in Brooklyn, N.Y. And to do that, with some coaching from his younger brother Leo, he had to memorize, dramatize and really, truly learn the address.
The result was nothing short of inspiring. That’s what New Hampshire filmmaker Ken Burns thinks too – not just about Henry (though I’m sure he would have been bowled over by his performance) but about Americans of all types learning and reciting the Gettysburg Address. Burns suggests just that on his wonderful new website, learntheaddress.com. There you’ll find videos of VIP Gettysburg Address reciters galore: President Obama, George W. Bush, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Rachel Maddow, Bill O’Reilly and more. Gabby Giffords is there, as is Bill Gates, Martha S tewart, Stephen Colbert, Whoopi Goldberg and journalist Gwen Ifill. Regular Americans are encouraged to make videos of themselves doing the same.
Short but profound
It took Lincoln himself less than 3 minutes to deliver the address on Nov. 19, 1863. He was at Gettysburg to dedicate a national soldiers cemetery and used his time to remind his audience exactly why they were fighting the Civil War. He predicted, humbly, that no one would remember the words spoken that day and, truth be told, the early reviews were not good. But the Gettysburg Address, which Burns describes as a sort of medicine for the nation, was in fact a challenge for America to prove to itself and the world that Thomas Jefferson’s words in the Declaration of Independence – that “all men are created equal” – could and would really mean something. The Gettysburg Address remains among the most important declarations ever made on human equality.
The national recitation competition was held in conjunction with the debut of Burns’s new film, The Address, which will be shown on PBS later this month. It’s a documentary about the students of the Greenwood School in Putney, who for decades have been encouraged to learn, memorize and present the Gettysburg Address to a large audience before they graduate. The students at the all-boys school are bright and talented but also challenged by a variety of learning and emotional disabilities. Their teachers use the Gettysburg Address to teach everything from handwriting and proper speech to history and grammar. Most important, they want to give their students an enormous challenge to reach for. When the boys succeed, it means the world to them.
A big challenge
Memorizing 19th-century prose and presenting it before a crowd would intimidate any of us. Perhaps there was a time when students regularly committed poetry and speeches to memory, but it’s no longer part of our shared experience. And it’s hard! Consider just this final sentence of Lincoln’s:
“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 here gave the 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 government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
It’s a mouthful, all right. But the kids in Burns’s film were poised and confident. So were the students in Henry’s competition, including the middle-school winner, DJ Santaolla of Culver City, Calif., and the high school winner, Simon English of Prides Crossing, Mass. They overcame jitters, tongue-twister sentences and more.
Henry says it took him probably a full week – over the course of a couple months – to memorize the Gettysburg Address. He learned it line by line, with his brother correcting him when he stumbled. Then he worked on his presentation. “I just figured I’d be as dramatic as possible – that would help me win,” he explained.
To Henry, among the most amazing things about the Gettysburg Address is its length – which is to say, its brevity.
“This revolutionized speeches,” he said. “Back then, a two-hour speech was pretty average. Lincoln just said a lot in a short time.”
In the film, one boy speaks proudly about his accomplishment. The hard work of understanding the words, committing them to memory and standing before friends and strangers to recite it with panache had made him, he says, “a new man,” and he means it.
Likewise, the Gettysburg Address and the sentiments behind it helped give the country itself a fresh start. Check out Burns’s film on PBS on Tuesday. And, if you’re so inspired, take his challenge: Learn the address.