Guest column: Courage and creativity in Washington, D.C.

By Joe Nathan – Guest Columnist

Next time you fly, here’s something you might consider. Close your eyes as you sit in a seat surrounded by tons of metal and incredibly sophisticated electronics and engineering. Imagine lying on your stomach on the lower wing of a 750-pound biplane with a 12 horsepower engine and a 40-foot wingspan. That’s what Orville Wright did on Dec. 17, 1903.

Learning more about the Wright brothers’ creativity and courage was one of the highlights of a recent trip to Washington, D.C., with our 7-year-old granddaughter.

As some politicians constantly criticize “Washington,” it’s worth remembering that this city also has some of the world’s most remarkable, compelling places.

Among the highlights of our visit were:

The view, with the Washington Monument in the background, sparks the imagination. (Photo by Joe Nathan)
The view, with the Washington Monument in the background, sparks the imagination. (Photo by Joe Nathan)

–Climbing steps at the Lincoln Memorial and then looking back toward the Washington Monument and the U.S. Capitol. The 7-year-old had heard about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. But being on the steps where Dr. King spoke and imagining thousands listening to him in the National Mall was more impressive than I can convey.

–Hands-on activities at the National Museum of the American Indian. This museum’s creators have done a terrific job of including exhibits that allow youngsters to feel what it’s like to balance a kayak, as Alaska native people do, weave a basket as some Southwestern native people do, or balance on a surf board, as pioneered by some native Hawaiians.

–Walking through part of the White House, thanks to staff of Sen. Al Franken who helped us (and many other Minnesotans) obtain tickets to see this remarkable place.

–Designing a virtual dance costume at the National Museum of American History and then dancing in it. Seeing Judy Garland’s original ruby slippers from “The Wizard of Oz” also was a hit.

–Walking by the wall that commemorates Americans who died in Vietnam and looking at individual flags and pictures that friends and family have placed at the bottom of the wall.

The 1903 Wright Flyer is displayed at the National Air and Space Museum. (Photo by Joe Nathan)
The 1903 Wright Flyer is displayed at the National Air and Space Museum. (Photo by Joe Nathan)

The statistics in this column’s first paragraph come from the Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum, one of the most remarkable museums I’ve visited anywhere in the world. The museum displays many famous planes, including Minnesotan Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis and several capsules that the U.S. has used to explore outer space. The museum also has many hands-on opportunities that young people and adults love. (More information about the Wright exhibit is available here: http://s.si.edu/2eL5agJ.)

Equally important, admission is free to each of the Smithsonian Museums, the White House, Lincoln Memorial, Vietnam Veterans Memorial, National Archives and many other places. So while it does cost money to go to, stay and eat in Washington, many of the most fascinating, inspirational sights are available at no cost.

Washington represents America’s sometimes-frustrating politics and divided democracy. But it’s also a place to find some of this country’s most courageous, creative, compelling efforts and successes. What a great place to take youngsters!

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, is a former director and now senior fellow at the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome at [email protected]