What Happens When Homeless People Memorize Abraham Lincoln’s Inaugural Address

What Happens When Homeless People Memorize Abraham Lincoln’s Inaugural Address

'I got three of my other homeless friends to help me work on this in the park where we sleep. And now, they know it too! So if we can do it, all y’all don’t have any excuse!'
Stevi Nichols
By

The day of Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, an “almost incessant rain” had turned the streets to mud. Some feared the weather would ruin the ceremony, but the large crowd stood silently, soaking in the gravity of the words Lincoln spoke.

The biblical imagery that filled the speech, the conviction with which it was spoken, and the gravity of the situation have made this speech one of the best in U.S. history. Lincoln’s timeless words contain truth that touches the hearts of all who hear it. Great or small, man or woman, slave or free, every American can recognize the importance of Lincoln’s message.

Perhaps this is why some have chosen to memorize it. By holding beautiful and true things in our hearts and minds, we provide a guide for our own thoughts and lives, long after we have ceased the work of memorizing them.

Memorization can sometimes be a hard task, especially for those no longer in childhood. Even to adults, though, memorizing is a very useful activity. Memorization helps to build a foundation of knowledge and skills that contribute to a person’s problem-solving capability. Memorization is an effective method in early childhood and elementary education, but it could also be a useful tool for an unexpected population: the homeless.

Nationally, homelessness has increased for the past two years. On any given night in 2018, 553,000 people spend the night in an emergency shelter, transitional housing, or on the street. The highest state rates of unsheltered homeless persons are in California, with 68.9 percent of their homeless unable to find shelter, and Oregon, with 61.7 percent. Texas had one of the largest percent increases of homelessness recently, with a 7.5 percent increase between 2017 and 2018.

To address this growing need, The Net, a nonprofit in Tarrant County, Texas, focuses on building relationships with those experiencing homelessness. Their mission recognizes that “poverty is more than material,” so every resource they offer is geared toward helping to “restore the sense of dignity and self-worth” in the men and women who regularly visit their location.

The Net’s model is structured to provide incentives to program participants, rather than simply issuing handouts. Participants can earn points to spend in the food pantry, the laundromat, or the clothing store by bringing friends, serving, and participating in events. On any given afternoon, The Net is full of men and women from all walks of life eating peanut butter sandwiches, using the computer stations, making arts and crafts, and simply hanging out and chatting with volunteers.

Last year, The Net began offering six-week classes as an additional way for program participants to earn points. Classes ranged from yoga to painting to sign language, all encouraging members to invest in their personal development.

This semester, The Net is offering an American history course.  Most of the participants have not taken a history class in more than ten years, and many barely have a high school education. Even still, the students all express interest in history and are enthusiastic participants in the class.

Learning about Hamilton and Lincoln

The first week, the students learned about Alexander Hamilton, particularly about his influence on the Second Continental Congress and the ratification of the Constitution through his writing in the Federalist Papers. After class, the whole center sang along to the soundtrack of the musical, “Hamilton,” in the common area.

Each student left the first class with a copy of Hillsdale College’s Declaration and Constitution booklet and was encouraged to bring it back each week, as it would be helpful in their later discussions of American history.

The next week, the class discussed Lincoln, popular sovereignty, and the 13th Amendment. For extra credit, they were given the last five lines of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address to memorize. If they could recite it in class the following week, they would earn an extra five points to use at The Net’s store.

George Washington Carver was the subject of the following week. After a lively and hilarious discussion centered on his botanical genius and generosity, one woman raised her hand and demanded, “When am I going to get to recite my homework?”

Then, in a very loud voice, with her head held high and a slightly self-conscious look on her face, she declared, “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right…” She looked down.

“I can do it… just let me think… Let us strive on to finish the work we are in — ” again she paused.

“… To…to bind… to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

The class exploded into applause.  The student grinned and then turned and fiercely declared, “Now none of y’all have any excuse! I got three of my other homeless friends to help me work on this in the park where we sleep. They would read a line, and then I would have to repeat it back to them three times. They did that with me. They were my fact checkers. And now, they know it too! So if we can do it, all y’all don’t have any excuse! You can do it too!”

Her tone was almost accusatory, but there was no mistaking the pride on her face. The other students looked slightly stunned.  Then one asked, “Can we practice now?”

A Challenge for All

For the remaining 10 minutes, the class worked together to memorize the five lines.  Most students left promising to perfect and recite it the following week. After almost everyone had emptied the classroom, a quiet student who never spoke up in class approached the teacher.

“I can say it,” he said softly. Then, staring straight ahead, he recited all five lines, as if in a trance. When he finished, he started and looked surprised.

“I did it!  I didn’t think I could do it, but I did it!”  His eyes were bright and his smile was huge.

By itself, memorizing five lines of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address is not going to end homelessness in Tarrant County or anywhere else. The amount of pride and accomplishment on those students’ faces after their successful recitations cannot, however, be overstated. The image of four homeless women learning Lincoln’s address in the park where they sleep is incredible.

Education is a tool meant to enable human beings to live fully human lives. Each lesson is a step upward. Many of these students can fit their possessions into a grocery sack and cannot keep a library of books, but memorization allows them to carry the good, true, and beautiful things they have learned wherever they go. Because they are doing the work to remember crucial pieces of their country’s history, they now have one more tool in their journey out of homelessness.

Stevi Nichols is a graduate of the Van Andel School of Statesmanship at Hillsdale College. A former history teacher, she has worked for the National Center for Policy Analysis in Dallas, Texas, and the Alan P. Kirby, Jr. Center in Washington DC.

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