Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Lincoln's Letter to Mrs. Bixby

“I have been shown… that you are a mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle.” -Lincoln

Teaching the American Civil War to high school students in Taiwan is… well… just like you would expect it to be. I show them clips from the 1970’s miniseries Roots. I show them scenes from Amistad when the slaves are being transported across the Atlantic in creaking old ships. I show them that scene from Glory where Broderick has Denzel Washington whipped, and he strips off his shirt to reveal all those scars on his back. I divide the class into groups of “Yellows” and “Greenies” and let one group sit on chairs and have access to books and make the other group squat in the back and take orders from the other… just to show a small splinter of what the real conflict was about, but it's just words and pictures. It can never reveal how deep the bayonet sinks into the skin.
“I feel how weak and fruitless must be any words of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a los so overwhelming.” -Lincoln

It ain’t easy, I get it. I choose the topics, I'm not naive in any sense. So when we find ourselves at Lincoln, I pause because I want it to stick. We talk about his humble upbringing and early failures, how he married an insane woman who died of a stroke after falling down and refusing to stand up. How in the middle of all this mayhem and madness Lincoln had to be strong, hold a country and a family together.
“But I cannot refrain from tendering to you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save.” -Lincoln

The kids know Lincoln. They know a couple of American presidents, but they are most fascinated by the little details their history text books don’t say. The mud that slips through the Mt. Rushmore monument cracks, like how Washington constantly complained about wooden teeth or how Kennedy had the secret service do his mistress bidding, but with Lincoln, it’s about words. Words were all Lincoln had.
“I pray our heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement…” -Lincoln

Oh, we’ve studied the Gettysburg Address and some of his personal letters, but one stands out: The Letter to Mrs. Bixby, an aging woman from Boston who lost five sons to the cause of the Republic. The correspondence is brief, what else would you expect from a man whose name is truncated to “Abe”? But concise in his sequence of grief. Lincoln states he is weak in his ability to comfort, expresses sorry, offers solace, thanks her, and ends with a prayer. I mean, what can you say to a parent who has lost a child, let alone five of them?
“The solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the alter of freedom.” -Lincoln

As I leave the hospital bed beside Xian and taxi back to school to teach this lesson, only to return a few hours later, sitting in the back of the yellow cab as it winds its way through the streets, numb and worrisome, I am reminded of other famous sequences to overcoming addiction and personal tragedy. How we are to admit we are powerless and come to believe there is a power greater than ours, and change our will toward that power.
Again. Just words. Not answers. But again it's time to pull myself up and stand in front of others and pretend I know the meaning of both.

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