Since 1992, an athletic coach and math teacher at Columbia Middle School has been taking select eighth-graders on a field trip to Washington, D.C.
Columbia Middle School eighth-graders Ashley Schmitt (from left), Austin Guidry, Monica Gross and Andy Clary won an essay contest to determine who got to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington, D.C. About 40 pupils in the eighth grade have taken the trip to the nation's capital every year since 1992.
Photo by Lynn Davidson
"The trip to Washington is something kids need to experience," said Bill Dunham. "For over 75 percent of them, it's their first time to fly in an airplane ... they get their photo taken with the senators ... it's just too much fun."
Ten years ago, Dunham, a retired army veteran, started the pupils' involvement in a wreath-laying ceremony during the changing of the guard at Arlington National Cemetery.
"It doesn't cost any money, and every kid who's ever done it always remarks how glad they are that they did it, that it meant something to them," Dunham said.
Each year, about 40 pupils take the trip to Washington, but only four can participate in the ceremony. The eighth-grade teachers hold an essay contest to determine who will be selected for the ceremony.
Stacey Dennis, a language arts teacher, said that by entering the contest, the pupils show how serious they take the responsibility of participating in the ceremony.
"We know the ones who submit an essay have taken extra time out of their schedule to work on it, so usually the entries won't be junk," Dennis said. "I tell them, 'I want to feel what you felt when you wrote it. Go deeper. Show me that you understand the seriousness of laying the wreath.'"
Dennis said the essays do not include names, so the teachers will be unbiased.
"Sometimes it's hard to choose because they are all good, but this year it was cut and dry," Dennis said.
Essay winners were: Ashley Schmitt, Austin Guidry, Monica Gross and Andy Clary. Ashley, Austin and Monica said they wrote their essays about family members who received awards for service in the various wars. They each said taking part in the ceremony would be an honor to carry on the family tradition of patriotism.
"My inspiration wasn't my family. My inspiration was all the soldiers that died, and the sacrifice they made ... I took the edge of how and why the cemetery is there," Andy said.
Ashley admits family was her inspiration in more ways than one.
"It's good for me to do something my brother has never done. I always follow under his shadow," she said.
To participate in the ceremony, the pupils had to dress appropriately. Dunham said they originally planned to all wear khaki pants and dark blue shirts. But cold weather changed their plans at the last minute. Instead, the pupils borrowed matching royal blue jackets embroidered with the school emblem on the collar.
"Our kids looked better than any group there. I wish more parents could've gone to see it. Just to see how well they all behaved, and how they responded to the ceremony, it was lovely, very emotional," said Cindy Guidry, a mother who chaperoned the trip.
Andy said the ceremony was nothing like he expected. It was "much more moving, walking down the aisle while taps was being played."
Dunham said the reaction is the same every year.
"There wasn't a dry eye in the house, the kids, the chaperones, the audience, everyone was crying,'' he said.
Monica said the Tomb Guard Sentinel helped them know what to do. She said they lined up at the top of the stairs by the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, then walked down the steps to the tomb, and hung the wreath on a stand. Then they had to all "stand there with our hands over our heart while they played Taps."
Austin said he was nervous, and felt that everyone could see him shaking.
"It was the highest honor any kid could get," he said.
The pupils flew to Washington, D.C., on March 9 and returned March 14.
"You should see the looks on other passengers' faces when we boarded the plane with 40 kids. They're thinking, 'What did I do to deserve this?''' Dunham said. "But afterwards, they came up to me and commented on how good the kids were."
The pupils also toured the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, the National Cathedral and the Library of Congress and sat in on a session with U.S. Rep. Charlie Norwood.
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