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Gettysburg Jacket

Fri, Feb 15th, 2013
Posted in All Commentary

I’m back in a classroom again, subbing. The other day I had to grab my raincoat to fend off the elements while helping students through the crosswalk, and I noticed something as I was buttoning up the snaps.

“This is my Gettysburg raincoat.”

I never really saw the point of raincoats, to be honest. I grew up without a lot of luxuries, so you got a heavy coat for the winter, and a lighter one for spring and autumn. However, for my Senior Tour in high school, my parents splurged and got me a bunch of new items for my first trip out east: the backpack that got me through college, a brand-new camera and of course, the raincoat. For us hardened Midwesterners, a rainy spring out in Pennsylvania would have seen no use for the winter jacket, and the light jacket might have been soaked through by the rain, if the movies and television we’ve seen of drizzly mid-Atlantic coal mines were any indication. It always seemed to be gray out there…

So, as we pulled into a drizzly, gray morning at the Gettysburg battlefield I grabbed for my raincoat out of the overhead compartment on the bus. I had the darn thing, and I was going to use it. I was actually the last off the bus, earning a small ribbing from my History teacher telling me to hurry up. My History teacher in high school was basically everything I ever wanted to be in a teacher (and everything I’m still trying to be, actually), so I made sure to hop to and get out there with the rest of my class to experience real, living History.

Our tour guide, another former History teacher and all-around amazing person, made this experience one of the most educational of my lifetime, but not just in the sense that I learned what a “brass monkey” really was. These two men would show me the way to walk, talk, and exhibit History outside of the dry, boring textbooks we’d seen or the dull, washed-out filmstrips we were forced to watch. At one point in the evening, I picked up a few blades of grass from the ground and showed them to another student.

“Do you know what’s in this grass?” I asked.

“Pesticides, probably.”

That’s when I knew I’d caught the bug, just like my tour guide and my teacher. Almost directly before that exchange, the tour guide had our class reenact a bit of History, telling us to run at a position on the battlefield tour like we were taking a Confederate position, yelling bloody murder all the way. It was exhilarating; my breath came in gasps, my arms pumped at my side of my new raincoat, my feet pounded the soggy ground, almost losing my balance. I pictured myself lurching forward to guaranteed shame, a faceful of mud and grass, one out of a class of fifty who couldn’t prove his mettle. But I forced one foot in front of the other, time and time and time again, until I righted myself and completed the charge. In retrospect, it speaks a lot to my entire high school experience: just keep putting one foot in front of the other, and you’ll get to the end.

After that wet, gray afternoon in Pennsylvania (see? We were right!) I didn’t use the raincoat all that much. It went with me to college, and was used a handful of times, but let’s face it: in the heart of the Midwest, you either need a substantial coat, or you’ll be fine with a sweater. In recent months, the raincoat found its way into the back seat of my little car as an emergency jacket. Reliable as ever, I always feel that twinge of nostalgia when I zip up that zipper and snap on those snaps.

If you think it’s ridiculous for me to be nostalgic for the year 2003, allow me to elaborate. My favorite teacher would leave us all within two years of that trip, taking with him one of the last solid role models in my adult life. If you’ve been reading my columns regularly, you know just how difficult I, and most of my generation, have had it trying to make our way in the brave and often cruel new world of recession. When I put on that jacket, it reminds me of so many dreams I used to have, so many good memories that even included when he would make fun of me. It’s a symbol of stability and the promises I had for the future. As silly as it sounds, those snaps are like armor for me. What I’m fighting these days may be more substantial than the rain and mud, but when I pull on the jacket, I’m suddenly that driven fighter charging over the sloppy earth again, and I take a little bit of comfort and strength in that. Perhaps one day, I’ll snap up my Gettysburg raincoat and lace up my Gettysburg sneakers one last time (yes, I saved the shoes, too) and I’ll take a class of my own out there to charge that dirt and consider that grass.

Hey, anything’s possible, right?

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