Arc of history

As we climbed the steps to the Lincoln Memorial, I remembered.

A lot of time had passed since my first visit to that monument. Now, after several decades and a long car ride, I remembered what struck me so powerfully back then.

The morning we left for our spring-break trip was dark and freezing. I was up early to load the car and finish closing up the house. I'd reminded myself not to be so surprised at cold weather in March, that spring break doesn't necessarily mean it'll look or feel like winter has left us. As the sun slowly, painfully rose, clouds blanketed the morning in a gray, purgatory feel. Our oldest daughter lives in Washington, D.C., and we had planned a visit--16 hours away.

I downloaded a new book to listen to as we drove, figuring my wife and daughter would want to sleep or have time of their own without entertaining me. Since we were headed to the nation's capital, I chose Jon Meacham's new book about Abraham Lincoln: "And There Was Light."

It was the perfect background.

My first visit to D.C. came during my senior year of high school. With George Washington University in the top three of my college choices, my father did the unthinkable in a large family--he planned a trip with just one of his children.

We had toured the university and sat in on a class. My dad insisted I wear a coat and tie, explaining that education is important and you dress up for important things. He underscored we would be in the seat of our nation's history and you show respect for that. I remember looking at the others in the tour group and wondering why they were in sweat pants and T-shirts.

After touring the university, we took some time on the National Mall. There, we ascended the steps to the Lincoln Memorial.

I thought about that first visit as Jon Meacham read his book in my ear while my wife and daughter chatted through the entirety of Tennessee. It snowed when we stopped in Virginia, frozen ponds glistened like jewels in the afternoon sun. Clouds of cow breath rose from the herds as ranchers rubbed their hands over barrel fires. I wondered if we'd ever be warm again.

Finally, we made it to the capital city. Our friends live in Cleveland Park, which was once a summer getaway for the president and situated in the shadow of the Washington National Cathedral.

It was a perfect launching point to tour downtown.

We visited museums and rambled through monuments. The new National Museum of African American History and Culture was incredible as the entire feel of the place underscores the journey of Black Americans from dank slave ships to the Obama White House. Powerful.

Then, we climbed the steps to the Lincoln Memorial and I remembered.

I remembered being that 18-year-old who stood in awe of the man modeled in marble. His words so deeply felt. His presence so firmly entrenched.

My youngest daughter stood there with me last week and I told her a scaled-down version of Jon Meacham's book: Lincoln was both revered and reviled. He sought peace but was willing to fight. The Union meant more than the individual. And his default was justice. Though often conflicted about the path forward, his North Star remained, absolutely and steadfastly, justice.

I told my daughter that even today, some will glorify rebellion and will try to explain away the scourge of slavery, effectively rewriting history. They'll wrap their social prejudices in political terms like states' rights and empowerment. They'll question literature that describes a past as real as the cherry blossoms in full bloom before us.

The fallible often accomplish important, lasting things, I whispered. Though Lincoln's steps were uncertain at times, he never moved backward because justice beckoned him to recognize her face within all. It is important to be thankful for what we receive; it is vital that we never deny to anyone that which is a right.

She nodded politely but moved forward to those steep steps overlooking the reflecting pool. There, she balanced herself in the same spot I had 35 years earlier, taking in history's depth whether she knew it or not. She pointed to a spot at her feet with chiseled words marking where Martin Luther King Jr. stood as he gave his 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech. She smiled.

The weather had finally turned from cold darkness to warm spring. Other tourists lounged in the pleasant air, and we found ourselves walking yet again. Sweatshirts and jackets hung from our hips as we moved forward.

And such is the arc of history if we allow it. There will be better days. And there will be light.

Steve Straessle is the principal of Little Rock Catholic High School for Boys. You can reach him at sstraessle@lrchs.org. Find him on Twitter @steve_straessle. "The Strenuous Life" appears every other Saturday.

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