It’s a word not many of today’s youth can truly understand. It might be discussed in history class when reading about the hardships of pilgrims and settlers or it might be casually tossed around at the lunch table when students are talking about what ranks higher on their social calendars, but when it comes to understanding the sacrifices of our nation’s veterans, very few might understand.
For nearly 70 sixth grade students from Neuse Charter School, sacrifice took on a whole new meaning as the class witnessed and participated in a very special event in our nation’s capital.
On Nov. 4, 2016 four students from the Johnston County charter school placed a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, while more than 100 fellow students, parents and visitors gathered to take part in the time honored tradition.
Dakota Williams, Jane Ivey Johnson, Kadin Henningham and Ella Rozier presented the wreath shortly before the changing of the guard around 4pm on Friday, one week before Veteran’s Day.
The students were chosen based on an essay contest held at the start of the school year.
Marjorie Harris, 6th grade teacher and organizer of the yearly DC field trip, said that students were asked to write an essay based on a quote from President Barack Obama. Students shared their thoughts on what the quote "We, the people, recognize that we have responsibilities as well as rights; that our destinies are bound together; that a freedom which only asks what's in it for me, a freedom without a commitment to others, a freedom without love or charity or duty or patriotism, is unworthy of our founding ideals, and those who died in their defense,” meant to them.
Dakota Williams, age 11, wrote that “patriotism inspires and unites people, it gives them a sense of pride and helps bring people together.” Her essay noted that “freedom is a right and a responsibility.”
Kadin Henningham said the quote means, “We can’t have freedom unless we have commitment. We can’t have a world with freedom if we don’t have love, charity, duty, patriotism, and commitment. We should not ask “What’s in it for me?”
The four winning essays focused a lot on commitment and service, two core principles valued and promoted at Neuse Charter School.
In fact, service is so highly regarded at the school that Harris turned the 6th grade essay contest into an opportunity for Neuse Charter high school students to demonstrate the principle by judging the contest.
“Our ninth grade students in the Freshman Seminar class used a rubric to score the papers and choose the top 10 essays,” Harris said. “The Senior Seminar class chose the top four winners from the essays that were sent to them.” Harris said student essays were assigned a number so that all work had complete anonymity.
The four winners were notified in early October and given specific instructions on their duties, demeanor and attire for the special ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery. A school assembly announced the winning essays and allowed fellow students to hear a few lines from each one.
Harris said that last year’s class was able to witness the changing of the guard, but not partake in the wreath laying event. She wanted to ensure this year’s class got that opportunity.
“We applied in April to participate in the ceremony this year,” Harris said. “This will definitely be a highlight for our students and parents.”
Harris’ goal was that students gained an appreciation for the people and sacrifices that helped form this nation. “When our students view the Declaration of Independence, Martin Luther King, Jr. Monument, Vietnam War Memorial and White House, I want them to reflect on the significance of each to our nation’s history,” she said. “While at Arlington Cemetery I want our students to quietly observe each grave we pass and think of the sacrifice that each person made for our freedom.”
These lessons were certainly not lost on the class, especially the four young students chosen to lay the wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Henningham was nervous and humbled as he placed the wreath.
“It was intense to place the wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier knowing I might do something wrong, and watching the guard talk to us with a stern voice,” said the 11-year-old Henningham. “I was honored because I knew that out of the entire 6th grade class I was one of the four people to place the wreath on the tomb. DC was a great experience.”