On the Fourth of July, we celebrate having this exceptional nation and the freedoms it gives us, but we must always remember that we have those things because of all the soldiers who put their lives on the line to secure them for us, from Revolutionary times forward. There’s a story I love to tell that illustrates that for young people.
When I was Governor of Arkansas, I got to know an outstanding high school teacher in Little Rock named Martha Cothren. She was one of my original Huck’s Heroines, and I was always telling her it was my goal to make her one of the most famous teachers in America, because she’d be such a great example to all teachers. Here’s just one reason why.
Martha became concerned that many of her kids didn’t fully appreciate their precious American freedoms. So she prepared an unusual lesson for them. On the first day of school, the kids shuffled back into class only to discover that it was completely empty. Not a desk in sight. So they asked, “Miss Cothren, where are the desks?” She replied, “You don’t get your desk until you can tell me how you earn it.”
The kids were stunned, but they started trying to guess how they earned their desks. By getting good grades? No, that’s not the answer. By behaving in class? No, that’s not it. The first period ended with the kids leaning against the walls or sitting on the floor, but they never had figured out how they earn their desks.
Well, in trooped the second period class. They were greeted with the same empty room and the same question they couldn’t answer. This went on all day, and by lunchtime, word was circulating all over school that Miss Cothren had gone crazy.
Finally, during the last class of the day, she told the students, “Okay, nobody’s figured out how you earn your desks, so I’ll tell you.” She opened the door, and in walked 27 military veterans, each one carrying a desk. As they quietly placed them in neat rows, Martha said, “Kids, you don’t have to earn your desks because these guys earned them for you.” She said you get free desks, free books and a free education, but it wasn’t free to these veterans…or to their friends who never came home from the wars they fought to give us all that freedom. She said, “Whenever you sit in that desk, try to remember who earned it for you.”
After that lesson, Martha was approached by one of those veterans, a news photographer, with tears in his eyes. He told her that when he returned from Vietnam, he was cursed and spat on, and made to feel ashamed of his service. He said, “Today is the first day since I’ve been home that I felt like someone appreciated what I did.”
Unfortunately, there can’t be a Martha Cothren in every school. But other teachers and parents can make sure their kids know who earned their desks for them. And we can all make it a point to say “thank you” to current and former members of the U.S. military. Seems to me, the 4th of July would be a great time to start.