A bridge across America, across time - East Valley Tribune: East Valley Local News

A bridge across America, across time

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Jim Ripley is the former executive editor of the East Valley Tribune. Contact him at jimripleyaz@gmail.com.

Posted: Wednesday, August 10, 2011 6:15 am | Updated: 6:43 am, Wed Aug 10, 2011.

You can compromise and still come out the winner.

Sometimes the French are right.

It helps to have bigger guns.

That’s some of what I learned from my summer vacation travels.

What did you learn from yours? I asked Mesa teachers Michelle Peters and Terry Ramirez.

I thought our stories might be similar.

You see, we were coming out of the gift shop in the visitors center at the Yorktown Battlefield in June when my retired school teacher wife looked up and recognized Peters.

I know it is a small world, but here we were 2,300 miles from home standing on the hallowed ground of the decisive battle of the Revolutionary War and talking about funding for Mesa schools.

The don’t-miss-the-next-tour clock was ticking; so I got Peters’ number and found out that she was there with other Mesa teachers on a federal grant and we parted.

I caught up with Peters last Saturday in her classroom at the Mesa Academy for Advanced Studies at Brown and Power roads. This time another clock was ticking with the new school year only days away.

Peters explained that her weeklong trip to Colonial Williamsburg, Jamestown Colony and Yorktown was courtesy of a federal grant called East Meets Southwest. The idea is to engage teachers in helping bridge the geographical and experiential gap between our part of the country and the original 13 colonies.

When Peters applied for the grant she likened the opportunity to see first-hand one of the cradles of our country’s founding to the difference between looking at a picture of the Grand Canyon and standing on the rim and experiencing it.

I hate to admit it but Peters’ reflections on her experience and what she will take into her Mesa classroom were more poignant than mine.

“I have a lot more appreciation of what life was like for the people who came to colonize North America. How courageous they must have been,” she told me.

In Williamsburg, where she walked on the same ground as some of our founding fathers, she also learned how the yearning for independence took root and grew into a rebellion.

The struggle for freedom is well known and treasured, but the pervasiveness of slavery is something we would just as soon forget.

“From growing up here in the West, I didn’t know much about slavery or the legacy of slavery,” Peters said.

How do you make peace with the fact that the author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, over the course of his life owned 600 slaves?

Peters has.

The founders, like Jefferson, “had conflicted beliefs and behaviors. They were real people,” Peters said. Just as they were then, “we are locked in our time and culture.”

The subordination role of women also left an impression.

“Women at the time were considered to be the property of their husbands,” Peters said. “They didn’t own anything.”

Unless their husbands died and until they remarried.

That freedom for some came much slower than for others didn’t dim Peters’ experience, but illuminated and strengthened it.

“I feel so extremely proud to be an American,” she said. “You just realize the sacrifice so many people made.

“We just take it for granted,” she added. “We’re so lucky to be here.”

Peters suggested I also talk to teacher Terry Ramirez.

Ramirez teaches fourth grade at Longfellow Elementary School, where the students are poorer than those who attend Peters’ class and predominantly Hispanic.

For her students, connecting to Colonial America does not come easily. “They just don’t have the background,” she explained.

As a native Arizonan who had never been farther east than New Mexico, Ramirez’s journey to the green woodlands and pastures of eastern Virginia was a profound experience that she will take into the classroom through hundreds of pictures.

“What I appreciated most was going to Surrender Field” where Lord Cornwallis’s army marched out and laid down their arms, Ramirez said. “You think about all the people who died for our freedom and continue to die for our freedom.

“You become part of that history because you were able to see it. It takes you back in time. You drive up and think, ‘Oh, my gosh, American revolutionary soldiers fought here.’ ”

Ramirez said her nephew recently came home from Afghanistan and made a connection:

“From the first colonists to now, we continue to fight for our freedom.”

She gets it. You don’t have to grow up in the East to get that. You can be first generation or fifth generation and get that.

My take-aways from Yorktown and a visit to Jefferson’s Monticello 130 miles to the west pale next to the emotional connections made by Peters and Ramirez.

Thomas Jefferson troubles me even more as a man who looked west to the Louisiana Purchase and to the Pacific through the Lewis and Clark expedition across the continent, yet built his house in such a way that he would not have to look down on where his slaves lived and toiled.

My admiration for George Washington only grows. He took on the best army in the world, got whipped a few times, learned to be flexible through six years of warfare, and was bold when he saw opportunity.

Washington did not want to fight at Yorktown. He wanted to attack the British in New York to avenge his humiliating defeat in 1776.

The admiral of the French Fleet said he would go to Yorktown but no farther north. Washington marched his army to Virginia. In other words, he compromised. He commanded the joint army but he fought where the French wanted to fight.

The French unloaded 24-pound siege canon from their ships and pounded Lord Cornwallis’s fortifications into oblivion.

Why should we care what happened 2,300 miles to the east 230 years ago?

“It’s extremely important to understand who we are as Americans,” Peters answered. “We need to understand how we got here.”

• Jim Ripley is the former executive editor of the East Valley Tribune. Contact him at jimripleyaz@gmail.com

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