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Where the learning never ends ...

The FDR Memorial and the Maze of History

At Thanksgiving, I spent a couple days wandering D.C. with friends, a couple of whom had never been there before. (Special yay! to Hostel International for making it affordable.) We did our own after-dark tour of the Mall, visited the Capitol, and spotted Dennis Kucinich on a cellphone at the airport.

The highlight for me, though, was visiting the FDR Memorial, located between the Tidal Basin and the Potomac. Like the Lincoln and Vietnam Memorials, it reminded me of the power of art to stir more than the intellect when dealing with the "facts" of history.

I've seen the layout of the memorial described as "four rooms," each representing a term of FDR's presidency and including carved quotations from the time, a scene captured in bronze statues, and bas reliefs. The memorial is rich with images, the sound of its waterfalls, the texture of walls dotted with bronze "snapshots" and information posted in braille. It is open and accessible to everyone.

But as I walked through the space, following the timeline from 1933 through 1945, it did not remind me so much of rooms as a kind of maze. Each of FDR's terms was in a sense hidden around the corner from previous. And it struck me how, when we Americans consider history, we tend to think of it as somehow predestined--as though there was a right or at least best answer that men and women like Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt were able to divine and set in motion.

That is not the way life works, of course, and the memorial subtly captures that. And that realization, or should I say interpretation, struck me profoundly in its expression there. FDR made his choices and decisions in 1933 not knowing how they would play out by 1934, let alone 1945. He crafted policies based on incomplete information, just like we all do when facing a momentous decision, and yep, there were plenty of mistakes that often get short-shrift in a historical narrative. But in his case he was racing against time to reduce a nation's poverty and desperation that some genuinely feared might lead to revolution. (Years ago, a friend told me of a memory of seeing machines gun mounted on top of buildings in Minneapolis in fear and anticipation of a bread riot.)

When writing history for young readers I think it is valuable to portray and dramatize such uncertainty that all historical figures confronted. I believe it helps us connect to the people who otherwise seem larger than life, who might seem inaccessible and unapproachable in their heroics, at least as history describes them. Instead, a portrayal that includes the uncertainties, anxieties, and mistakes of a person's times can help us recognize a common humanity, and if anything might model an inspired decision-making process. Perhaps such a notion of history can inspire us, with the uncertainties and anxieties of our times, to access untapped courage in ourselves and dare to make mistakes. As FDR said in response to some cabinet members' timidity: "It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something."

That is what I took away from the FDR Memorial. And why I'll return there the next time I'm in D.C.

Happy holidays to everyone. My thoughts heading into 2010? The world around us holds at least as many opportunities as it does fears.
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