These J. Taylor Finley Middle School eighth graders just love to learn new things, so the day of the week didn’t matter to them when a perfect opportunity to broaden their intellectual horizons presented itself.
Huntington English teacher Kimberly Schiller brought a group of 15 students to the New York Historical Society Museum & Library in Manhattan on a recent Sunday to view the Hotbed exhibit and meet and speak with famed 19th century African-American abolitionist, statesman, social reformer and spellbinding orator “Frederick Douglass,” who was played by living historian Michael Crutcher.
“This month is the 200th anniversary of Frederick Douglass’ birth,” Mrs. Schiller said. “My eighth grade English students recently finished excerpts of Douglass’ narrative and I was thrilled when I saw the New York Historical Society’s e-mail regarding their celebration of him. I knew that my students would be interested in going and learning more about his life first-hand.”
The Finley contingent also viewed the current Hotbed exhibit, which “explores the vibrant political and artistic scene of Greenwich Village in the early 20th century, where men and women joined forces across the boundaries of class and race to fight for a better world,” according to the New York Historical Society Museum & Library’s website.
Mr. Douglass and the Finley students really hit it off. “He described his life as a slave for us, how he felt when he first learned how to read, his harrowing escape from slavery and his life’s work as an abolitionist,” Mrs. Schiller said. “Mr. Douglass went into great detail describing the ‘invaluable instruction’ he received when his master discovered that he was now literate. He described that moment as the most ‘invaluable instruction’ because it showed him that literacy and education was his pathway to freedom.”
“You must learn everything you can,” Mr. Douglass told the Finley eighth graders. “Don’t let the thought ever cross your mind of quitting education. You will become a slave to ignorance, to crime, to alcohol and drugs. You must learn everything you can.”
The students were mesmerized by the words spoken by Mr. Douglass and they seized upon the opportunity to ask questions about his life. Finley eighth grader Emily Geller asked Mr. Douglass when he felt he was at his “most vulnerable” and he responded by stating he “felt broken” by Edward Covey, the notorious slave-breaker.
When Finley eighth grader Joseph Rodriguez asked Mr. Douglass what he considered his “proudest accomplishment,” the teenager was told that “being instrumental in the eradication of slavery.” He went on to say that abolitionists Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman were two of his biggest inspirations, helping to keep his fighting spirit running high.
Mr. Douglass closed his Q&A with the Finley group by explaining that “freedom is not accompanied by equality” and that it’s an ongoing fight. “He said that even President [Abraham] Lincoln didn’t think a black man could equate intellectually to a white man until he met with Mr. Douglass,” Mrs. Schiller said.
The session ended with Mr. Douglass reiterating to students about the need to stay in school and pursue their education, regardless of the obstacles that might arise in life.
“After our Q&A, we took a group tour of the Hotbed exhibit,” Mrs. Schiller said. “Hotbed explores the vibrant political and artistic scene of Greenwich Village in the early 20th century, where men and women joined forces across the boundaries of class and race to fight for a better world. The students were able to examine primary resources specific to the fight for women’s suffrage, worker’s rights and equality and justice for African-Americans. The students discussed pivotal women in history like Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Crystal Eastman, Mary Heaton Vorse, Inez Mulholland, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Ida B. Wells, to name a few. The exhibit traced the different roles these pivotal women and groups had in developing equal rights for all citizens in the U.S.”
A graduate of Division Avenue High School in Levittown, Mrs. Schiller went on to earn undergraduate and graduate degrees at Adelphi University in English and secondary education. After teaching in a gifted and talented program for a year, she came to the Huntington School District in 2005 and has been teaching eighth grade English ever since.
“It was a wonderful day and an honor to take my students on this trip,” Mrs. Schiller said. “They represented Finley Middle School and Huntington with class and their intelligent and insightful questions and comments made me even prouder to be their teacher.”