In the past, I’ve had students ask if the reason why I teach World History is because I loved it in high school. I’d like to be able to say yes, I had a marvelous World History class in high school, and that’s why I majored in History and fell backwards into teaching– but the fact of the matter is that I remember very little of my high school World History class. I know we read Cry, the Beloved Country, which I loved, and we colored a lot of maps. Beyond that, it’s a bit of a blur. But the next year, my junior year, the summer after I went to GHP and thus became increasingly frustrated with high school, I took AP US History with an amazing teacher, and I remember that class. Ms. F lectured from a podium, all day, every day– no PowerPoint, no nothing. I sometimes took notes, but more often I drew pictures while she talked and asked questions of us. Sometimes I drew henna patterns on the back of my hand. It should have been deadly dull, but it never was.
(This– the doodling instead of taking notes– was pretty par for the course for me. I’m an abysmal note taker, and always have been. But I remember what I hear, and so my notes often just are a list of names with arrows and triangles and pictures of birds. It works for me, and it’s part of the reason I’m opposed to the idea of requiring notes, or checking that students take notes in a particular format. You take notes? Good for you. You don’t? I hope that works for you, kid.)
I loved Ms. F. She was the first teacher I had in Social Studies who really made me see how amazing primary sources are, how documents function as time machines. And while today I’m not an Americanist in terms of my interests or training, I owe to her my fondness for Supreme Court decisions, my everlasting girl-crush on Abigail Adams, and my love of epistolary writing.
I still have the textbook for that course, believe it or not. Bentley’s American Pageant. It’s on the bottom of one of my bookshelves, and I occasionally consider giving it away to Goodwill or something. And then I think, “But what if someone makes me teach U.S. History one year?,” as though textbooks are something I couldn’t get easily, and am able to justify hanging on to the text for just a little longer.
I bring all this up because I went up to D.C. last week with my mother and sister and my mother’s friend, and D.C. is an odd sort of textbook of a city— all those monuments and memorials and museums crammed into a tight space, like an editor trying to fit all the requisite facts into a certain number of pages. I’d been to D.C. before– once, with my family when I was nine or so, and it was so cold the Reflecting Pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial was frozen solid. We walked across it while Congressional interns played hockey. I also went in eighth grade, and we did the endless bus ride, quick blast in-and-out trip that so many middle schools do in the hopes of engendering some sort of civic-mindedness. I’m not sure it worked, but I still have the photographs.
Eighth graders on a school trip to D.C. mobbing the Lincoln memorial. Obviously, this is not one of the photographs I took in eighth grade. No one took selfies in the 1990s, thank god. My middle school self is intensely glad she missed out on that particular trend.
This particular trip was prompted primarily by the fact that my sister, Emily, returned from her term of service in the Peace Corps in Paraguay in December, and had begun applying to jobs. As anyone who’s ever had the extreme joy of job searching could tell you, the first few weeks and months were less than fun– a few nibbles here, a phone interview there– and then things finally start going right. She had a couple of interviews in quick succession, followed by a couple offers. And a few weeks ago, she received a tentative job offer from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) contingent upon a background check– which we knew she’d pass without trouble. Em’s wanted to work in emergency management since college– her undergraduate thesis was on hurricane evacuations– so this was exactly what she was hoping for. With a pretty secure offer on the table, we mustered the troops and made a trip to D.C. in search of housing for her.
Emily, standing outside of the FEMA building. Which is just across the street from the Department of Education. I have told her that I might send up a few pieces of constructive criticism she can deliver to them.
Finding housing in D.C. is, it turns out, somewhat challenging! Especially if (a) you’re working with a limited budget, (b) you want to try to live in a neighborhood with working streetlamps, (c) you need Metro access, and (d) would like a grocery store within walking distance. Still, after some dedicated stalking of online rental pages and a day in which we did basically nothing but drive around the city looking at properties– Mom and her friend looking at it from the perspective of parents concerned about safety, and Em and I looking at it from the perspective of Can You Afford It? and Do You Think The Electricity Will Go Off If The Wind Blows? No? Then It’s Better Than Paraguay!— Em found in a room in a brownstone in a nice transitional neighborhood, a couple blocks from a Metro station which will take her to work in about ten minutes.
(Side note: I love my job, and I very much like where I live, but let me tell you how much I would love to be able to ditch the car and rely on public transportation. But alas, I live in the wilds of metro Atlanta, and public transportation is a dirty word here.)
After successfully managing the housing thing, and giving Em some time to meet with her future employers, we had plenty of time to play the tourists. Of course we did the inevitable monuments tour of Lincoln and Jefferson and Washington and Korea and Vietnam, as well as the more recent MLK and FDR memorials–
Korean War Memorial. I’ve always loved this one.
The Great Emancipator.
Maya Lin knew what she was doing with this design.
We couldn’t have gone up the Washington Monument– there’s something wrong with the elevator, and I don’t fancy all those spiral stairs. Talk about dizzying.
I was working for that angle, with the Washington Monument in the shot.
I like the colors of the Roosevelt memorial– the slight pinkish hue of the granite against the gold and green of the bronze statues is lovely.
TJ and I have a rapport. He’s confusing and contradictory and I don’t care, he’s awesome. ❤
— but my favorite thing about D.C. is always and forever going to be the museums. I love them, love them, love them. I love that they’re free, without question. I love the idea is that these are treasures that belong to all of us, and that we, as American citizens, have a right to access and appreciate the great works of art and history that we, as a people, have produced. I think of the great museums of Europe– the Louvre, the Prado, the British Museum– and they are all breathtaking and impressive, but. They’re also exclusionary. The Louvre is something like $25 for a one-day admission. If you try and take a family of four to the Louvre, it’s going to cost you at least a hundred dollars. But you can go to the National Portrait Gallery and the Air and Space Museum and the Museum of the American Indian in the same day in D.C., and all of them are open to the public and cost you nothing to enter. And that’s important.
We went to several museums during our trip, but I think my favorite was the Hirshhorn. While I definitely love history museums, I think I like art museums better. There’s something meditative in it for me. I’m one of Those Museum People: I like to sometimes just find a quiet place to sit in front of a piece, and just drift for a while. I’m not really a great person to go to museums with, I think– I’m too much in my own head, and I don’t usually like talking too much about what I’m seeing and thinking, mostly because it seems stupid when I say it out loud. I like trying to figure out what the artist wants to say with a piece– especially sculpture or modern art.
Like these portraits. I like the shape of them. I like their lack of faces. I don’t know much about de Koonig– I know more about her husband– but I think maybe she was going for shape and movement? The way you see a silhouette from a long way off and recognize the person from the way they scuff their left foot on the floor.
Courtyard at the National Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum.
Three Altars, from the self-taught section of the American Art Museum. Man, I love folk art so much.
I sat in the folk art section of the American Art Museum for a good fifteen minutes, just looking at Three Altars, thinking about the fervor of faith that drove its creation, and about how that depth of belief is so contrary to anything I’ve experienced, and how that doesn’t seem to matter when I look at pieces like this.
A work in paper and gunpowder, displayed at the Hirshhorn Museum of Modern Art.
A yellow tower of statues of the Virgin Mary, with an abstract painting in the foreground. From the permanent collection of the Hirshhorn.
Curving, dripping pieces of nylon filled with Styrofoam pellets, suspended from the ceiling of the Hirshhorn. Amazing to walk through and under.
Lick and Lather. Two sculptures, one made out of chocolate, the other out of soap.
Oh. Oh, this was from Shirin Neshat’s exhibit, Facing History, and it was AMAZING.
Part of Neshat’s exhibition included films.
Part of Neshat’s exhibition, this display is called “Book of Kings,” and includes portraits of Iranians with verses from the Shahnamah overlaying their faces. Gorgeous.
I loved this portrait. Must have spent ten minutes in front of it.
This display used verses from a Persian poem about loss, called “The House is on Fire.”
At any rate. That’s a brief, nonsensical collection of thoughts about our trip to D.C. I’m sure I’ll have more to say about the city in the future, once Em moves and she settles in. I anticipate many future trips up via Amtrak for the purposes of crashing on her floor and spending days in the museums.
See you later.