We were on our way to Virginia Beach during the Easter break. The senior advisor had organized and set in motion a fabulous senior trip this year and we’d taken a short stopover in Washington DC which had left us with a few hours to roam around. I had decided I wanted to see the Capitol building given that we were limited to walking distance from where the bus was parked, and some of the seniors, mostly thinking they could mess around, had decided to go with me and my wife who was also one of the chaperones for this trip. Mess around meant they wanted to get high and they thought they could sneak off long enough to do so. They didn’t get the chance actually, not then, but if you’ve ever dealt with high school seniors, you know that nothing deters them from what they want to do and by the time we were back on the bus they’d hooked up with their friends to accomplish their real mission.
Good thing they didn’t get the chance on our little side excursion, too. It was quite by happenstance that we actually met up with Senator Moynihan as we approached the Capitol building. I don’t think that the good Senator from New York would have liked to have encountered a group of students all bleary-eyed and smelling from marijuana. Perhaps, if some in my group had wandered off to get high we might not have met the senator at all, but then you never know.
It was a truly beautiful day in DC. We had all had lunch at Union Station where the bus had parked, and after a bathroom break and a careful counting so that the senior adviser and the chaperons knew who was where, my wife and I and eight students set off for the Capital. Now seniors on senior break when put together in a group on holiday for four days, no matter how academically rigorous they are individually, like to let loose. Two students with me were on my debate team, very smart and extremely sharp-witted, savvy arguers, but they had already shed their professional, braniac demeanors and deferred to their boyfriends’ wild and rowdy ways. Three of the boys were wearing their baseball caps (at least they were Yankee caps) brims off to the side and at various angles, and they all had shirts out, name-brand shoes on and jeans down to…you know where. One pair of students were lovers and no matter where we went, they were always lingering behind, hand in hand or arm in arm, twinkle-eyed without any enhancement inducements, the perfect commercial for the “I Only Have Eyes for You” song. Ah, to be young!
So there we were. We had just crossed the street and started on our way up to the Capitol steps only to see that there was a long line of tourists waiting to get in and that we had no chance of ever making it inside the building given our time restraints. However, outside the tourist barricades a group of men were descending the stairs from inside. One of those men was Daniel Patrick Moynihan. No one in my group recognized him, but I did, and in what ended up being perhaps the most memorable and wonderful moment of my whole teaching career, I led my group up toward the senator. Almost instantaneously, Secret Service agents who had been at his Suburban at the curb and those surrounding him on the stairs descended upon us, but the senator quite coolly waved them off because he must have heard me calling out “Mr. Senator, Mr. Senator.”
Regardless of politics or anything else, the Senator did something so absolutely fantastic it warmed my heart and warms my heart still as I think of it. He let us approach and I was able to introduce the group of students with me as his up-and-coming constituents, a group of high school seniors from the Bronx. He was kind enough to shake hands with each and every one of my students, but when he got to the first boy who was wearing his hat, before he shook hands he said “Take off your hat when you speak to me, son.” The boy was so taken aback that he whipped that hat off his head without even thinking and so did the other boys. They looked like their wings had been clipped, meek and actually respectful. Good thing their shirts were out and the Senator couldn’t see how low they were wearing their pants.
He went on his way and we went on ours, but it was nice to see that my kids were as awed as I was. I don’t know what they say about this event, even if they remember it at all, but I do know that it was the single most fabulous moment of my career as a teacher, and Senator Moynihan, may he rest in peace, did one of the most wonderful things I’ve ever seen by simply teaching my kids to respect their elders and their leaders.