November 11th is Remembrance Day in Commonwealth countries—Veterans Day in the United States. The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month is observed, not just to reflect on the time in 1918 when armistice was signed to end the First World War, but to honor sacrifices made by so many military personnel—ensuring the survival of democracy. This story from a little classroom teaches you an eye-opening lesson about freedom that you’ll never forget.
Martha Cothren is a social studies teacher at Joe T. Robinson High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. On the first day of school in September of 2005, Ms. Cothren did something to be remembered. With permission from the principal and school superintendent, she removed all the desks in her classroom.
When the first-period kids entered the room, they were shocked to find no desks.
“Ms. Cothren, where’s our desks?”
She replied, “You can’t have a desk until you tell me how you earn the right to sit at a desk.”
They answered, “Well, maybe it’s our grades.”
“No,” she said.
“Maybe it’s our behavior.”
She told them, “No, it’s not even your behavior.”
And so, they came and went. The first period. Second period. Third period. Still no desks in the classroom. Kids called their parents to tell them what was happening and by early afternoon a television news crew gathered to report about this crazy school teacher who’d taken all the desks out of her room.
The day’s final period arrived and, as puzzled students found seats on the floor of the desk-less classroom, Martha Cothren said, “Throughout the day, no one’s been able to tell me just what he or she has done to earn the right to sit at the desks that are ordinarily found in this classroom. Now I’m going to tell you.”
Martha Cothren went over and opened her classroom door.
Twenty-seven Veterans, all in uniform, walked into that classroom—each carrying a school desk. The Vets began placing the desks in rows, then walked over and stood against the wall. By the time the last soldier placed the final desk, those kids started to understand—perhaps for the first time in their lives—just how the right to sit at their desks had been earned.
Martha said, “You didn’t earn the right to sit at these desks. These heroes did it for you. They placed the desks here for you. They went halfway around the world, giving up their education and interrupting their careers and families so you could have the freedom you have. Now, it’s up to you to sit in them. It is your responsibility to learn, to be good students, to be good citizens. They paid the price so that you could have the freedom to get an education. Don’t ever forget it.”
I think Martha Cothren taught us all a lesson about freedom in that Little Rock classroom. And I think her lesson needs to be shared.
Over my six decades of enjoying freedom, I’ve attended every Remembrance Day ceremony as far back as I can remember—two of those decades marching in the parade wearing the red serge uniform of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
But I didn’t earn the freedom to march in my police uniform. That was earned by people like my father, Alan Rodgers, a World War Two air-gunner who served in a Lancaster bomber crew flying over Nazi Germany, and my mother, Lillian (Wegenast) Rodgers, who proudly served in an equally-important uniform as a Royal Canadian Air Force air traffic controller.
I proudly wore a peace officer uniform for a lot of years, but what I did in helping to maintain local law and order was nothing—absolutely nothing—compared to what Veterans of the Great War, World War Two, Korea, Vietnam, Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan did for our society.
And now we have ISIL/ISIS to face. Selfishly, I hope my son never has to use the skills he’s been taught. Alan’s skills are to employ the harsh tools of war needed to protect our freedom.
Freedom is not free. It’s earned at a tremendous cost. Many paid the ultimate price to give us freedom—like the freedom Martha Cothren had to educate her kids in that desk-less classroom.
Lest we forget.