Saturday, March 5, 2011
DC Day One and Two
Yesterday morning 17 Quisqueya high schoolers plus Ben and I flew from Port-au-Prince to Miami, then Miami to Washington Reagan airport. I smelled the Subway in the Miami airport at least 100 yards away. It was heavenly. My mother, blessing of all blessings, was able to meet us in Washington just for the first two days of the trip, and I have been so encouraged to have her here. All 20 of us, suitcases rolling like a buzzing horde over metal grates and cobblestones, made it through customs, baggage claim, the Metro, and all the way to our hotel. Phew. I stood in the "non US citizen" line in customs for the first time with our Haitian citizen students, and saw the video they show about America while you wait- lots of gorgeous scenery and images of our racial, ethnic, and regional diversity.
This morning we woke up early and headed to the White House! Unexpected: major delays on the Metro red line. We literally sprinted the last few blocks. The White House was magnificent. We strolled through the East Wing, saw the China Room, and marveled at the Green, Blue, and Red Rooms. The cop in the State Dining Room talked about how they all get to eat the leftovers when the dignitaries leave. The buildings in that area- the Hotel Washington, Department of the Treasury, Department of Agriculture, and Department of Commerce, to name a few- are just exquisite temples of classical architecture. Perhaps the highest concentration of doric fluted columns in the universe. Thank you, Dr. Smith, for making me memorize all those architecture terms at Baylor!
Next we made our way to the National Mall. We walked by the Washington Monument, the giant pointed obelisk in the middle, and spent awhile in the World War II memorial. It is a giant circular space with a huge fountain in the middle, and on one end there is a heartbreaking display: over 4,000 gold stars affixed to the wall over a reflecting pool. Each one represents one hundred fallen soldiers. Below, the words: Here we mark the price of freedom.
At the Vietnam Memorial, the most moving part was an impromptu lecture by a National Park Ranger who spoke about the thousands of items they find left at the base of the black reflective granite "scar" in the landscape. He described finding footballs, 6-packs of beer, a Harley Davidson, a wedding dress, and a cigar box full of love letters left on the 40th anniversary of a soldier's death. I lost it, as did many of the kids.
At the Lincoln Memorial, things were rushed and crowded. Kids got hungry and had to go to the bathroom. As most of our students are black, I was hoping for some kind of emotional moment, a "wow factor", but it kind of got lost. I wondered about whether our Haitian students really identify with Martin Luther King's movement for black equality, since they are so young, not American residents, and probably experience extremely little oppression in their lives (relative to 50s/60s blacks in the South).
Next we walked to the Holocaust Museum. We ate in the cafe inside the museum. Is it weird to anybody else that there's a cafe at the Holocaust Museum? It felt slightly indecent. In addition to the ubiquitous caesar salads and wraps, the cafe served kosher fare, matzo ball soup, and knishes.
Inside, there are three areas of the museum: the permanent exhibition (the largest part, covering 3 floors), "Daniel's Story" (the children's part), and a special exhibit on Nazi propaganda. This was my second time through as an adult, and I was most moved by three parts. First, an audio recording of an interview with a concentration camp survivor testifying to the memory of having her head shaved by the Nazis upon her entrance to the camp. Second, the video in the Auschwitz section depicting the medical experiments on prisoners, including children. Third, the videos that Soviet, British, and American troops shot as they arrived to liberate the camps. They are horrifying. Unconscionable. Because of the disease risk, the liberating armies' first task was the bury or burn the tens of thousands of dead bodies they found, so the process had to be very quick, which led to a lot of footage of soldiers hastily dragging, or even bulldozing, the dead. Many tears.
Tonight several students mentioned that the most moving part was at the end. There is a room where you walk between two large glass compartments filled entirely with shoes. Shoes of concentration camp victims, taken from them as they were sent to the gas chambers. The room smells loudly of leather. Almost all are black, a few white, one pair bright lipstick red. A pair of baby shoes.
Between the Holocaust Museum and the war memorials, there were many somber moments. I'm excited to hear what was going on in their minds as the week goes on.
We ate dinner at a Chinese restaurant, held our nightly team meeting/devotional, and are headed to bed. Just a few brief snafus- a temporarily lost wallet, a lost Metro card, and a couple times where someone wandered off for a few minutes. All ok in the end.
Things I learned: 15 - 18-year-olds are just that, even when they are generally great kids. Patience is the most important form of love I can offer right now. Also, a teenager being well-traveled is not the same as having traveled alone. A person who has traveled alone or led a trip knows how to reads airport monitors, subway maps, and train schedules with ease. They never stand on the left side of an escalator, and they know to walk all the way to the center of a subway car when you enter. I repeated a few phrases about 100 times today: "keep your voice down", "stop here so we can count", and "does everybody have your Metro card/money/passport?" But even as I say this, I must be so proud of them- no complaining, no whining, no fighting, no bad attitudes. Even one with a sore knee and one with a cold walked all over DC without a fuss. So proud.
Tomorrow, a little time to sleep in!