Education of a Tour Guide

By Bill Thomas
Sunday, August 27, 2006

Everyone living in Washington is a part-time tour guide. Relatives and friends come to town, and what do Washingtonians do? They take them sightseeing.

I've had lots of practice showing houseguests as well as tour groups around the city. But recently I got a call asking if I'd be interested in showing the sights to a visiting class of eighth-graders. The students were coming from rural Illinois, and most had never been east of Chicago.

"They'd really love having you," said a tour coordinator I had met during the last presidential inauguration when I escorted one of her off-season groups to the swearing-in ceremony.

This time would be different, she said. Washington in the spring would be crowded with schoolchildren all wanting to see the same things, so I'd have to be flexible.

Right away I liked the idea. Here was an opportunity to mold impressionable young minds and give a captive audience of 13-year-olds a field trip they'd never forget. Not to mention make a few bucks.

Okay, it was self-indulgent. Only in this case there was something else involved. Call it a sense of duty.

Who hasn't seen stories about schools producing graduates who can't find the United States on a map? They had to be completely lost when it came to American history and the workings of government. Eighth-graders are our future, or at least part of it. How could I turn down the chance to set a few of them straight?

I'll do it, I said.

As soon as I hung up, an itinerary arrived via e-mail. The first day included the Library of Congress, the Supreme Court and a tour of the Capitol grounds. And that was before lunch. Most of the places on the list, like the White House and the Lincoln Memorial, I knew well. One of them, the Awakening, I'd never heard of. I counted 15 stops in 2 1/2 days. Mount Vernon and Arlington National Cemetery alone meant miles of walking.

What had I gotten myself into?

STERLING, THE STUDENTS' ILLINOIS HOME TOWN, WAS A DOT ON MY ROAD ATLAS 30 miles east of the Mississippi River. There were other small towns in the area named after places pioneers probably came from, New Boston, Ohio, West Jersey, and even smaller ones, Oregon and Dakota, where they might have decided to cut short the journey west and put down roots.

This was in the middle of Middle America, not only "The Land of Lincoln," who practiced law throughout the state, but the breeding ground of other presidents, too. Ulysses Grant lived in nearby Galena. Right next to Sterling was Dixon, where Ronald Reagan grew up. Reagan's boyhood home is an official historic site, and the Rock River, where he's said to have pulled 77 swimmers from the water during his years as a lifeguard, flowed through the heart of Sterling.

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