Thursday, July 26, 2012

Everything I Know I Learned From Thomas H. Gallaudet

It started with a friendship. Nine year old Alice Cogswell was Thomas Gallaudet’s little neighbor. The young minister noticed the girl sitting by herslf in the garden day after day. She seemed lively and energetic, yet none of the other children in the neighborhood bothered to play with her or even to talk to her. Puzzled, he stopped one of them and asked why. He was saddened to learn the answer. Alice was deaf, he was told. With no way to communicate with her, no one wanted to play with her. No hearing, no speech. No speech, no playing.

So Gallaudet began spending time with the girl. Most "experts" at the time thought that deaf-mutes (as they were called) were somehow brain damaged. That the lack of hearing either stemmed from or caused a brain defect, and that was why such children had difficulty learning. No hearing, no language. No language, no learning.

But Gallaudet made a very pleasant discovery. He found that there was nothing at all wrong with Alice's mind, and he set out to teach her himself. And if she couldn’t hear language, he would just have to find some other way to communicate with her.

He made little progress at first. He was no teacher and really didn’t know the first thing about teaching a deaf girl. But he was determined. His quest to find a key to Alice’s mind led him all the way across the Atlantic. Schools for the deaf in France had discovered that language didn’t have to be heard to be understood. Students there communicated through signs with remarkable results. Gallaudet learned French Sign Language and brought it—along with one of the school’s teachers—to America. He raised money to build the first school for the deaf in the United States. The school, now known as the American School for the Deaf, opened in 1817, and is still in existence today. Among its first class of students was Alice Cogswell.In his determination to find a way to reach her mind, he brought about a revolution in deaf education in the country, and brought illumination to countless deaf students.

Still, I can't help wondering. What would have happened if Gallaudet had not been the person he was? If he had given up, discouraged by his early failures? If he had decided he was not the man for the task after all? What would have happened to Alice then?

I use the word "determination" often in writing biographies, and Gallaudet is the perfect exemple why. No one writes a biography about a quitter. No determination, no victory. No victory, no illumination.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Everything I Know I Learned from a River

In 1998 my husband and I were casting about for something new to do on summer weekends. The kids were getting older--read bored--and an occasional trip to the beach just wasn't cutting it anymore. So we bought a power boat. The combination of speed and water was just the perfect combination for two pre-teen boys.

The boat was big enough to be fun and small enough to be trailerable. That meant we weren't tied down to one marina. We explored the local lakes and occasionally took the boat to the bay in Rhode Island. The boys went tubing and learned to water ski. It was all a great adventure.

It didn't take long, though, for us to outgrow the little lakes where we were skiing. There's only so long that you can tolerate going around and around and around in endless circles. It was then that my husband suggested taking the boat to the Connecticut River.

The river? I hadn't really thought about the Connecticut as a real river. It had always been just something I crossed over on my daily commutes. I had only ever seen the river from the highway bridge, and in truth, I usually didn't even give the river a glance. Were there even boats on that river? Maybe, but I couldn't have told you.

Well the river turned out to be our home away from home for many summers. It was a delightful discovery. Instead of water skiing in circles, we could ski long straight stretches of river. The boys swam from the boat and watched schools of fish. Once or twice a year we took the boat to the mouth of the river and into Long Island Sound. And when it was nap time (uh, not them, me) we put them ashore and let them play explorers or pirates. Every year we watched the Fourth of July fireworks from the cockpit of the boat anchored in the river.

But mostly we just powered down the river and watched the scenery. Who knew that below the crisscross of highway bridges was such unspoiled natural beauty? Well, my husband obviously did, but I hadn't a clue.

Last month the federal government launched the National Blueway System to focus attention of the nation's rivers and our historic connection to them. I am proud that the first river to be designated a National Blueway is the Connecticut River. Maybe more people will discover what I did: that if you really want to experience something you can't just look down at it from above. You'd better get down there and get wet and squish some mud between your toes.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Everything I Know I Learned from Stephen Pleasonton

The last hot dog has been eaten (yum!). The final fireworks have lit up the sky (oooh!).
The last BOOM has echoed though the night (wow!). And the dog has finally unstapled himself from my leg (It's OK, Willy!).

Fourth of July is over for another year. And yet I'm still thinking about it. Last week I was lucky enough to visit the birthplace of the Fourth. No, not Philadelphia. I went to Washington, to the National Archives, and stood in front of the Declaration of Independence, the document that started it all. It wasn't my first time, and God willing, it won't be my last. But seeing the Declaration of Independence never fails to make me weak in the knees.

Now, I admit, I'm a sucker for primary sources anyway. The very thought of something REAL that's been touched by so many heroes of history gets me in the throat. And in truth, there's really not much to see any more. The print is faded to near invisibilty, and pretty much the only name that's legible is John Hancock's.
And yet... And yet, there is something so special about the Declaration of Independence. What else can bring a group of antsy fifth graders to hushed reverence?

As I stood there elbow to elbow with the crowd of school kids, I couldn't help but give a silent prayer of thanks to another hero of history, Stephen Pleasonton. Don't know the name? Well, he's the reason we still have the Declaration of Independence to look at. He's the reason the Declaration--and other documents--were not reduced to ashes two hundred years ago. Let me tell you.

In the summer of 1814, all of Washington was in a panic. The war against the British had been going on for two years, but now it had arrived on the city's doorstep. Over four thousand British soldiers had landed at Benedict, Maryland, and were marching toward the capital. Their intent: to burn it to the ground.

In the midst of the panic, State Department clerk Stephen Pleasonton was ordered to safeguard the important papers of the department. He bought cloth and had it sewn into bags. Into the bags he stuffed all the documents of the State Department offices. And these were no ordinary documents. Among them were the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the letters of George Washington.

While he was busy, Secretary of War John Armstrong stopped by. He was well-known in Washington for refusing to believe that the city was in any danger. Baltimore, he was convinced, was the true target. He pretty much accused Pleasonton of overreacting, and told him to stop. The clerk refused. He spent the next few days searching for a place he felt was safe enough for such treasure. He finally hid the bags in an empty house in Leesburg, Virgina, locked the house, and gave the key to a trusted friend.

On the night of August 24, 1814, the British did indeed arrive in the capital.
They burned the White House, the Capitol, and other public buildings, including the offices of the State Department. The flames were visible as far away as Baltimore. But Stephen Pleasonton never saw them. He was so exhausted by the stress of his responsibility that he had checked into a hotel and gone right to bed.

Washington burned that night, but the Declaration of Independence and the other treasures of the nation were safe in their hiding place. Because a clerk named Stephen Pleasonton refused an order and saw what needed to be done.