I am in Philadelphia on the last weekend of April, first time back home — I still think of it as home, although Guido and I left permanently in 1985 — in several years. I’m walking south on Market Street down by Independence Mall, where I encounter this marker.
Even though it’s Saturday, there are what appear to be flocks of school children accompanied by teachers visiting the historic site where the Declaration of Independence was signed, the Constitution debated and written, and the nation itself born. Growing up, us kids took all this venerable shit for granted — it had always been here, everybody took numerous tours (both in school and otherwise), and it was all just part of the big dirty city like the dive-bombing pigeons, stinking buses, puddles of mysterious substances in the streets, weirdoes everywhere we learned to avoid looking at, and ubiquitous cigarette smoke. Have I ever mentioned how the fifties sucked? That’s another post or two.
So I determine I will light a small cigar, linger a moment, and eavesdrop on the lessons presented by these earnest Saturday morning tour guides to their young charges. Sixty years since I got schooled myself, how do they discuss the First Amendment?
Teacher gives the standard textbook speech — if I were assigning hash tags I’d include freedom, rights, expression, speech, American, protection, government, and the like. Her elementary school-age kids behave, at least, standing quietly if not especially attentively, shuffling a trifle but not picking noses. Teacher stops and asks for questions.
One little fellow raises his hand. “If we’re allowed to say anything we want, how come you won’t let me call Eduardo an asshole?” he asks. He’s utterly serious. Or a great actor. I stifle a smirk.
Give Teacher credit for handling this one as well as she does: she’s clearly a veteran and knows her kids well. I am also amused that before she answers she shoots a look over at my mocking face, sending me back half a century to that anxious, watery-bowelled what-did-I-do-now-am-I-in-trouble miasma of guilt and fear that school instilled on me, like the dreaded “permanent record” they would threaten us with. Posing Double-O Sevenishly with my cigar, I try not to let on. Fat chance! She caught me. She knows.
Another kid wants to know why, if this is so important to rate its own memorial tombstone (as she calls it), it had to be amended to the Constitution, and didn’t rate inclusion in the first place. Bear in mind this is like maybe a 5th or 6th grader.
Teacher is impressed — so am I — and gives an answer that makes sense (along the lines of, The amendments are part and parcel of the original, not afterthoughts; this was a decision based on style and structure), but maybe the class could research it further and get more information when they return to school.
Time for one more. Little girl asks why there are only Founding Fathers, no Founding Mothers.
I imagine this is as good a time as any for me to slip the old moccasins back on the hooves and get my ass moseying on, but out of nowhere, Teacher points right at me — I feel a familiar stab of horror — and says, “Maybe that gentleman can answer your question.”
About 14 little expectant eyes swing over in my direction. In that moment, I understand my role — I become the city, the pigeons, the filthy puddles, the buses, the weirdoes, the taken-for-granted urban background into which kids have always immersed and matured, unaware of its ongoing evolution until they, too, switch roles. As I just do.
So I tell them that times change, and what is so clear to us today after literally hundreds of years of civilization wasn’t always so clear to even the best and brightest of our species even ten years ago, let alone 240. And that today there would be Founding Mothers, and we’d be better off for it. Which is why you’re here today, on a weekend, because this lesson and these experiences don’t have days off, and need bright beautiful kids like you to learn them well so you can not only apply them, but teach them to kids just like yourselves, when you kids get to be older.
Pretty good, innit, for extemporaneous bullshit? That Toastmasters training was worth every session. Even Teacher reshapes her cracked-plate rictus and manages a smile. I’m feeling pretty good when one of the kids pipes up, “Did you know Ben Franklin when he was here?”
Punk. Pustule. You must be Asshole Eduardo. I hearda you.
I assure them Ben-Fran and I were great chums, and in fact I’m off to visit his post office in the next block. So, with a nod of acknowledgment to wily Teacher, off I limp, into history.