Story by: Annie Thomas
All students currently enrolled at West were born in years ranging from 1996 to 2001, so it’s fair to say there may be some limitations to the history they’ve experienced first hand. Luckily, the teachers and faculty add a larger range of life experience, allowing students to experience history second hand.
Two of West’s teachers, Cynthia Denker and Beth Cramer-Cumins grew up living in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement, a movement students have only been taught about.
“I remember seeing the march from Selma to Montgomery on the news. It was disturbing to see the violence perpetrated against the marchers. I remember my dad just shaking his head and walking away from the TV and my mom just looked sad,” said Denker.
Denker also was introduced to true racism as she remembers the division of minorities in America.
“I think in some ways it made people feel superior if they could degrade someone else. This was not present in our home, but I remember it clearly in other situations. I think there were a lot of people like my parents, but they didn’t speak out. They didn’t protest, they were passive as most people were. They did what many did, they just tried to teach their children not to be biased and to judge people on who they were, and as MLK would say “the content of their character”, not by the color of their skin. My mom always said, ‘A good person is a good person,’” said Denker.
Cramer-Cumins also grew up living in both the North and South during the fight for equality, and she clearly remembers the feelings that were constantly present within their society.
“I would describe the tone of the civil rights movement as very tense in the South and riddled with fear in the white communities in the North. I managed to live in both areas during the movement. The tension in the South was palpable–there was an unspoken code of conduct within the white community with regard to interaction with blacks. I experienced the South as a 12 year old, and found the actions of whites confusing. When I asked questions, I was usually dismissed,” said Cramer-Cumins.
Although the Civil Rights Movement ended about forty-seven years ago, Cramer-Cumins still sees racism alive today as many minorities are still fighting for true equality.
“Whites need to hear and acknowledge their racial biases–those of privilege especially need to admit to the deep-seeded prejudices that are inherited in their society. There are there; they are real. The voice of fear and prejudice speaks to white society in whispers, but they speak. Until we can admit to hearing them, we cannot make those voices go away,” said Cramer-Cumins.
To our current generation, all we know about these movements are what teachers have taught us, textbooks have told us, and movies who have painted pictures in our minds. Facts are mixed with imagination to help provide insight of what life could possibly be like during these eras, and seldom do we remember some of our own peers don’t have to use their imagination at all.
History teacher, Steve Smith, has understanding of the Vietnam War and “Hippie Movement” that he also personally experienced.
“I think there was doubt that we should be there. I think there was doubt that the government was telling us the truth. To some, it wasn’t the US’s war, it was LBJ’s war. And then I think that nearly everyone who was alive at the time knew someone who was killed in Vietnam, and you wondered why? What did it accomplish?” said Smith.
There may be one true historical event that still rings in students minds today, and that event is 9/11. Although we were young and memories are vague, these terrorist attacks on the United States have affected every last citizen.
History teacher, Matt Turner’s memories of 9/11 and days past 9/11 are clear to this day.
“That morning the only real memory I have is how absolutely quiet it was. Literally a hundred people surrounding a TV in the commons and no one was speaking. Just watching in horror…There was a lot of fear in those first few days, fear of another attack, fear of changes. One of the most positive reactions was the overall feeling of unity in the next few weeks and months. Everyone became extremely patriotic, flags were everywhere. There were no Republicans or Democrats, only Americans. That slowly began to change, especially in the buildup to the Iraq invasion in 2003. For those first few months though, I’ve never seen such an outpouring of support and unity in our country, it was amazing,” said Turner.
The class students take at West about American History can feel close to ancient history, but it’s closer than it seems. People who have memories and stories about social movements and historical events sit in classrooms around West everyday and with every step students take, they are given the opportunity to time travel back to the not-so-long-ago past and relive what events through the ideas of adults who lived it. All they have to do is ask.