Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Lecture I Didn't Get to Give This Year

Normally, when we study the Civil War, I spend some time talking with students about events that preceded the War. Since I had a student teacher during this time, I didn’t get to address this personally. Of the pre-war events, the one that usually gets a day’s attention all by itself is the Dred Scott Decision. Most people learn about the court case for the political implications about slavery and Chief Justice Taney’s assertion that slaves were property and didn’t deserve rights of citizens. That alone should make it something to remember. However, my students know that one thing I always preach is going to the primary source. That’s where you’ll find what makes history real and relevant. So here in this source is a tiny little overlooked part of the document that speaks volumes: This is the signature of Dred Scott when he sued for his freedom. The name Dred Scott was not written by him. He only made an X, his mark. This kind of mark was familiar to me, because I had worked for my family’s company in the 1980’s, and we based most of our business on credit sales. When a person sets up his or her contract, the buyer signs papers that say he or she will pay a set amount each month for a specified period of time. Sadly, some of the older African Americans who had accounts with our company were unable to read and write; so like Dred Scott, they had to make their mark on the paper and have witnesses sign that that was indeed his or her mark. Of course, we could have a whole class discussion about why these people missed out on an opportunity for a good education. Civil rights makes for great discussion many times throughout the year; but for this day, the discussion leans toward how this is relevant to today’s generation. Look at this mark. What does the person who makes it say to us? He says I am unable to make decisions without the help of someone else. He says I am dependent on someone else to say what I need to say. He says I have to trust others whom I may not even be able to trust. I am not self-reliant. It’s not only about reading and writing one’s name, either. There was a whole document that preceded Dred Scott’s mark, and he had no idea what it said, unless he knew for certain that he could trust the person who read it to him. I often thought of Dred Scott’s trust when I read a contract to an older person who never learned to read and write. This person was dependent upon me to get it right. I wondered how many other less scrupulous businesses might have taken advantage of this person, and it saddened me. Dred Scott was a man who had been denied the right to an education. Most slave holders realized that an educated slave would not be easy to control, so they didn’t allow them to be taught. There are slave narratives that tell about a yearning to be able to read and write. I read one not long ago from a lady named Sarah Wilson, who recalled that she and others would sneak out into the woods to learn from one of the white children who went to school. For them, education was not a right, but a dream. What about reading and writing today? It’s essential! How many times will you sign documents? Job applications, employment contracts, insurance forms, IRS papers, and rental applications are just a few of the documents you will probably have to fill out and sign when you get a job. What are you going to do? Do you go to your parents, trust the person with the papers, or think for yourself? If you ever want to be a fully functioning adult in today’s society, you need to be able to read and write, and you need to do it well. Now, think about how these people saw education as being for the privileged few. By law today, we offer a free education to everyone, regardless of any differences we may have. It does not matter what you have or don’t have. You can have an education. Why would you throw away that amazing opportunity that so many who came before us would have loved to have had? Why spend one minute off task when someone is trying to teach you? Why would you ever spend a day in ISS or OSS because you refused to behave well enough to learn? Why would you play, mouth off, fight, or do anything that would jeopardize your chance to get that education that so many were denied? They knew that education was the real power, the real equalizer of humanity. Do you? Look again at Dred Scott’s mark. With that little bitty X, he made his mark on history. Think how much more you can do, how much you are allowed to do. Shouldn’t your mark be even greater? Use your opportunities to learn. Don’t spend your whole life being dependent on someone else to think or make decisions for you. Read. Take time to comprehend what you’re reading. Make good decisions for yourself so that you can leave an impact for good. Mrs. B

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