Laying the Wreath: The Value of Remembering

A few weeks ago, Dr. Wood, one of our eighth grade Humanities teachers, spoke to middle school students about a community ritual known as The Tolling of the Bells — a time when students gather in the center of our campus and remember the passing of a member of our community.  “There is value,” he said, “in remembering.”

Next week, the eighth grade will embark on a journey that is all about remembering.

They will travel to Washington D.C. and visit memorials, museums, monuments, and battlefields. One of the most poignant and powerful moments will occur when they spend a few hours at Arlington National Cemetery, the final resting place for more than 400,000 active duty service members, veterans, and their families.

Arlington is an active cemetery. An average of 30 burials a day take place on these hallowed grounds.  In the heart of this cemetery lies the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. This tomb represents the thousands of soldiers who died while serving our country — but whose remains have never been identified and brought home for burial.

It is guarded 24 hours a day, 365 days a year – in every kind of weather – by a special honor guard. During their visit, four of our eighth graders will have the honor of laying a wreath in remembrance of those who gave the ultimate sacrifice for our country.

In order to be considered for this opportunity, students wrote an essay describing a personal hero. This year, about two dozen students submitted heartfelt essays, eloquently describing the character traits that made their hero worth emulating, including integrity, courage, and compassion.

Today, I want to share with you a short passage from each of the four selected essays.

Emma D. writes that society has an “archetype for heroism” that conjures up images of caped crusaders saving people from burning buildings. She writes, “My hero wears not a cape, but a robe. My hero is my mother.”

Emma’s mom is a state judge who hears capital murder cases, a job that is “stressful for an abundance of reasons.” Emma writes:

“On the bench, my mom has to remain impartial, strong, and open-minded. When I come to the courthouse with my mom, as she walks down the hall, there is an unspoken sense of power and a tacit respect for her. Just walking down the halls, I knew and understood how much responsibility comes with being a judge. I view my mother as a hero not only because she follows and enforces justice, but because she stands firm and fair during every single trial.”

Emma also honors her mother for her commitment to parenthood.

“My mother is a judge, a lawyer, a role-model, but before all of that, she is a mom.  She cheers at every soccer game, she encourages me at every track meet, she gives me positive reinforcement before any test and I know, in future years, she will be clapping at graduation, crying at my wedding, and no matter where she is physically, she will always be by my side emotionally.  My mom makes it her leading goal that I grow up with an open heart, a beautiful soul, and a sharp mind. My mom is a hero . . . because she gives me the resources I need to become a kind, caring, honest, and successful human being.”

Caroline S. honored her great-grandmother noting:

“A hero is a person who has the strength to push through the toughest struggles and has the love and compassion to use that strength in a positive way for people they care about. A hero is filled with wisdom, and that wisdom is used to guide others to their highest potential.”

Caroline eloquently describes the struggles her great-grandmother faced in her long life, including the deaths of her husband and children, her struggles with cancer, and her courageous decision – as a widow — to travel three hundred miles to rescue two grandchildren out of an unhealthy situation and raise them as her own, writing, “If Maw-Maw had not saved my mom and uncle, I probably would not exist today.”   

Caroline continues:

“What makes my great grandmother a hero is not the fact that she survived multiple hardships; it is the way in which she reacted to those struggles. She kept a positive attitude and never turned her back on life. Maw-Maw is an exceptional example of the expression ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.’ She got stronger, wiser, prouder, more loving and more loved after going through the difficulties.  Going through the tragedies and struggles allowed Maw-Maw to appreciate the happy moments more and helped her share this wisdom and positive outlook on life with others and me. . . . Maw-Maw taught me that every second counts, and that I should spend as much time as possible with the people I love.”

Jenna A. describes two heroes who “bravely put their lives on hold, and in jeopardy, to fight for their country.” In 1917 her great grandfather, Carl Vogel, signed up to fight in World War 1. Carl was a first-generation American whose father had immigrated from Germany –  the very country the United States was fighting. He was eager to join the military because “he believed in the principles the country was fighting for . . . Carl was just one of thousands of recent immigrants to the United States who proudly served their new country.”  

Carl served in the trenches on the front line in the Battle of the Argonne Forest. Several years later, he died because of complications from the toxic gas attacks he endured.

Jenna also describes how, during World War II, her grandfather enlisted in the Air Force immediately after graduating from high school. His plane crashed during a training exercise, and he spent a year in the hospital recovering, far away from his family and the comforts of home.  

Jenna concludes:

“My grandfather and great grandfather represent the many thousands of soldiers who put their young lives on hold during WWI and WWII while they went off to serve.  They left the security of home at a young age in order to serve their country. For them, and for the thousands of others who served alongside them, I am truly grateful.”

Bradford B.’s essay contains a poignant reminder about why we tell these stories –  and why we should share our own stories with the people around us. He writes that before two weeks ago, he didn’t really have a personal hero.  But then he got an unexpected package in the mail. It was a letter from his grandfather –  affectionately known as Peepa –  and two books.  

In the letter, Peepa described how he had taken a creative writing class in 2000 with the intention of writing his life story for his then unborn grandchildren. Those two books contained his story.

Bradford opened the first book and quickly became enthralled as he read about his grandfather’s childhood and young adult years. In one story, Peepa described how — during a time of racial segregation –  he was invited by a friend to an African-American non-commissioned officers club. It was a farewell party before that friend shipped out to fight in the Korean War. He wrote about how they talked and played music together through the evening: “For one glorious moment, music transcended all barriers, integrated the services, and brought us all together.”  

After reading dozens more stories about his grandfather’s successes and challenges as he endeavored to live a good life, Bradford made this observation:

“Groves ‘Jerry’ Byers is a man who until a couple of weeks ago was just Peepa.  I read these stories and realized that this man had been through experiences that I sometimes couldn’t comprehend. He’s explored places and met people who I wish I could have met. Peepa is a man who I want to be like, who I aspire to be. He inspires me to get up in the morning and live each day like it’ll be the best day of my life, though it sometimes isn’t. Peepa is a guy who can effortlessly create an image for all to see and hear. He tells how the world is and was. He tells me the good moments and the moments that aren’t so good. He is the man who wrote these stories so that when I get older, I’ll be able to remember him how I want to. Peepa is my hero.”

I hope these stories cause you to reflect on people in your life who inspire you to stand a little taller, act a little braver, and dig a little deeper as you strive to “leave a place better than you found it.” Next week, when these four students lay the wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, they will represent all of us here at Trinity Valley Middle School. Their gesture will say, “We remember you and the sacrifices you made.”


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