Teacher Brings Real Life to History

By Elizabeth Williamson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 28, 2005

A month before he died, President John F. Kennedy said, "A nation reveals itself not only by the men it produces but also by the men it honors, the men it remembers."

Kennedy was speaking of war veterans, and so -- quite often -- does Colleen Bernard, Frederick County's recipient of the 2005 Agnes Meyer Outstanding Teacher Award. Bernard's commitment to veterans and the historical lessons they teach is what distinguishes her among her peers, according to her students, parents and colleagues.

Bernard, who taught social studies and history during her six years at Windsor Knolls Middle School in Ijamsville before moving to nearby Urbana High School this year, believes that "we need to acknowledge the service and sacrifices of the generations before us that provided the safety and the security and the prosperity that we have."

"We lose 1,000 to 1,500 World War II veterans each day. In 10 years the whole generation will be gone, and with them will die a part of our history."

Bernard, 34, of Union Bridge, is well acquainted with veterans' contributions. Her husband, David, is a Gulf War veteran and third-generation Marine, and her father served in the Air Force during the Vietnam War. In 2001, Bernard founded and chaired Windsor Knolls' Veterans Committee, with an initial emphasis on veterans of the conflict in Korea, the "forgotten war," she said. Over the next three years, the group expanded its membership and mission, honoring soldiers from all conflicts and bringing them into the middle school's classrooms.

Retired Army Col. William E. Weber is a frequent speaker at Windsor Knolls and elsewhere. A veteran of World War II, Weber lost an arm and leg during the Korean War. He teaches students about "the kind of things that bring America . . . to war and what are the principles for which we're fighting," he said. The hardest part, Weber said, is helping them understand that America fights for its principles even when, in the case of Korea, there is no immediate threat to its territory.

There are more immediate lessons, however, from a man who, at 79, skis and rides horses as he did before his injury. "You can make [students] believe that anything is possible . . . no matter what happens to them," Weber said.

Bernard's commitment to living history, he said, makes her "the kind of a teacher that children are blessed to have."

In 2003, the Veterans Committee dedicated a memorial garden at Windsor Knolls. A POW-MIA flag flies over the well-tended plot and a plaza of bricks, each inscribed with the name and rank of a veteran from the county.

Linda Shipp's son, Philip Andrews, participated in the garden project. Bernard drew the shy sixth-grader into the activities, encouraging him to speak in public during one of the celebrations. "He soon developed a new sense of self-esteem, a kind of 'pride' in his accomplishment that I have never noticed before," Shipp, of Ijamsville, wrote in a letter supporting Bernard's entry for the Meyer award. Bernard, she wrote, "truly emulates the ideal of what a teacher should be."

As a social studies teacher at Urbana, Bernard and her newlyformed Urbana High School Veterans' Club are participating in an oral history project. "I'm hoping what we do will be used in the future by others to help teach this era."

Bernard said the veterans are "just wonderful people . . . I feel like they've given me more than I've been able to do for them." Then she laughed. "They're always on time, they always bring friends and they always have a plan."

Her own plan, Bernard said, is to help her students appreciate what she considers to be the most precious feature of American life: "our ability to be the government. In many places, people give their lives to be able to vote in elections. I want to instill in my students a sense of civic responsibility."

There is another quote, this one from the cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead, that resonates deeply for Bernard: "Never believe that a few caring people can't change the world. For, indeed, that's all who ever have."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company