Education Secretary William J. Bennett rode in the back of a yellow D.C. school bus yesterday, singing "Battle Hymn of the Republic" in a loud baritone as he shepherded 23 sixth graders from Washington's Amidon School on a field trip to the Lincoln Memorial.
On a blustery morning, Bennett walked quickly with the class up the memorial's 58 steps. Then he led the group in reading the Gettysburg Address and the last paragraph of Lincoln's Second Inaugural, which are carved on the memorial walls.
When the class paused in front of Lincoln's statue, Bennett pointed to a pigeon on Lincoln's hand.
When the class walked back down to the bus, he stopped at the spot where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963, and talked about that.
For Bennett, who has taught 15 classes around the country since September, it was his field trip as secretary of Education.
For the students, whom Bennett also plied with cookies and cocoa in an Education Department conference room, it turned out to be "lots of fun," said Sheree Way, 11.
"And I learned a lot about Lincoln I didn't know," she added.
Before the trip, Bennett spent about 15 minutes in a sixth grade classroom at Amidon, 4th and I streets SW, peppering the group with questions about Lincoln. There were more questions as well as singing on the bus, still more questions and discussion afterwards along with the cocoa.
At one point on the bus, teacher Connie Norman had the pupils turn the tables on Bennett, telling him what they had learned about him. "Born in Brooklyn, July 1, 1943," some students shouted. "Age 42," they continued, as Bennett winced.
"What are his hobbies?" Norman asked.
"Sports, mountain climbing, studying ancient Greek, teaching," the students answered.
"And rock and roll," one student said.
"What? Do you all work for the FBI?" Bennett responded. "That's very impressive."
"I wish you'd remember my good singing voice," he added later, "And you should see my dancing."
"Do you breakdance?" one girl asked.
"No," Bennett said. "But when I dance I break things."
"He sounded like he loved doing it," Norman said later, "and he showed it . . . . You can't fake it with kids."
Bennett explained he gets "a great charge" from teaching. "And it reminds me that this is the ultimate bottom line of what we're doing. It's a good thing for a secretary of Education not just to talk about education but to educate."
He said he also wanted to make a few points about the curriculum by teaching the classics of American history.
Norman said the class had been studying about Lincoln and his speeches for several days before the field trip. They could answer many of Bennett's questions. But when some stumped the students, Bennett asked more and then explained.
He also read Civil War era newspaper editorials attacking Lincoln, told some of Lincoln's jokes making fun of himself and recommended a Lincoln biography by Stephen Oates.
"I want to thank you for teaching us a pretty great lesson," student Darryl James told Bennett.
"This stuff still works," Bennett said to a reporter later. "These are American kids and they need to know our roots.