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Loreto goes to Washington

 

The author as the new face of the Statue of Libertyan account of a 6th form trip to the American capital
By Beth English, 6th form student, Loreto College Manchester

Posted 17-Jul-2014

 

 

The Statue of Liberty

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Empire State Building

 

After fears of flight cancellations, a very early morning meeting and a race around Heathrow to catch our flight, we thirty students and four teachers from Loreto College counted ourselves lucky to make it to New York for the first part of a two stage history and politics trip. However the trip turned out to be the experience of a lifetime that all concerned were hoping for.

We touched down at John F. Kennedy airport to find a customs queue that seemed to stretch right back to Manchester. We nervously waited to be processed, remembering not to joke with officials in the airport. We stepped outside to a blast of icy February air that took your breath away. Let’s just say that temperatures of -8˚ can only be fully appreciated once experienced. Having made it to our hotel and checked in we headed out to one of the most iconic sights of the United States, the Empire State Building. Excitement grew as we walked through the snow-covered streets towards the tower that is visible for miles around. The view from the balcony: New York at night spread out as an array of glistening lights; illuminating the Brooklyn Bridge; Rockefeller Centre and the countless skyscrapers is indescribable. It is truly awe inspiring to look out at the city that endured the world’s largest terrorist attack and was the cause for the ill-fated ‘war on terror’. After taking in the sights and purchasing some King Kong themed merchandise we headed back to a well deserved sleep.

New York StreetsThe next day began with a walking tour of some of the most famous buildings in New York from the United Nations (that unfortunately wasn’t in session) to the stunning, art deco Chrysler Building built during the New Deal. We also found time in our hectic schedule of visits to enjoy shopping on 5th Avenue (much to the delight of some of the girls) and the ludicrously sized meals in that make British ‘large’ portions seem like a joke throughout our trip. We got lost in, Central Park that provides a welcome respite from the overwhelming skyscrapers all around.

The day I was most looking forward to in our stay in New York was the visit to the Statue of Liberty and the immigration museum on Ellis Island. We piled on to the boat that was to transport us across and braved the wind on the top deck to get the best possible view of the statue and the classic image of Manhattan from the water. The statue itself is smaller than we expected, but as a symbol of liberty and hope for arrivals to the USA it is beyond compare. The museum on Ellis Island chronicles the experiences of immigrants to the United States for over 200 years and is defiantly worth seeing. The ordeal arrivals went through including medical examinations, literacy tests, arduous waiting and the looming fear of being denied entry is fascinating and, even after this experience the museum shows the hostility of residents to new arrivals which parallels current immigration hysteria in the UK as well as the USA. We also saw Wall Street, the crowning symbol of the US’s capitalist economy, adorned with American flags in all its glory.

The trip to Washington was tiring but broken up by a short stop over in Philadelphia to see the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, where the founding fathers drafted the Declaration of Independence that eventually secured their freedom from British rule. The trip was well worth while when, after the formalities of the arrival in Washington, we walked the short distance to see the White House at night. Seeing the famous marble columns up close and knowing we would actually venture inside the next day was thrilling and reminded all of us of the ideals of open government the founding fathers laid down in the constitution.

We woke the next day excruciatingly early but in high spirits and made our way to the entrance which was manned by heavily armed guards that were a little intimidating and, after making our way through yet another rigorous set of security checks, we entered the building that has housed the nation’s leaders since President Lincoln. The fact that this is even possible was amazing to students from a country that does not allow its citizens access to the street where its leader lives, let alone to their home. We wandered through the halls, desperately trying to take in every detail as cameras were strictly forbidden. The halls were lined with busts and portraits of past Presidents and, much to our surprise and delight, the first bust is not a President but Dr Martin Luther King Jr, a leader in the civil rights movement and advocate of peaceful protest. The tour made us realise how overlooked many of the 19th Century Presidents (some of whom we were ashamed never to have heard of) are and how the increasing importance of image in politics in the 20th century has led to the election of a different type of President; coiffed, well presented and affixed with a convincing smile. Everywhere you turned there was the eagle motif, in wood carvings, furniture and perched over every door frame, a constant symbol of the values the nation was founded upon. While taking photographs outside the White House we also met a protestor against American involvement in various wars (and his dog) who had been camped opposite the White House for over 30 years. It reminded all of us that this great power can inspire and influence democracy world wide but can also cause great damage if its actions on the world stage are misguided.

Loreto studentsVisiting the Supreme Court on the same day was almost overwhelming. Walking up the steps with the Statue of Justice and the inscription  ‘Equal Justice Under Law’ above the door and entering the place were 9 men had upheld the right to abortion, deemed segregation to be unconstitutional and forced the release of the Watergate tapes that eventually led to the resignation of President Nixon was astounding. Famous decisions are inscribed in gold on the walls and busts of famous justices are everywhere. We crowded around to take pictures through the door of the court and then put our cameras away to step inside for a talk on the workings and history of the judiciary. That same day we went to Arlington Cemetery, resting place of most of the nation’s presidents as well as many other important figures. After studying the civil rights movement in AS History we were keen to see the graves of both John and Robert Kennedy and were not disappointed by the flaming monument to the 35th President accompanied by an inscription of his inauguration speech. We were lucky enough to see the changing of the guard at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier that was extremely moving. During our trip we also visited the monuments to the Vietnam and Korean Wars and were horrified by the sheer length of the wall chronicling those killed in Vietnam.

It is surprising to realise that the Congress building housing the legislature is far more prominent than the White House. The white, domed building that is mirrored in every state capitol across the country shone in the stark February sunlight as we queued for tickets for the tour and, after a quick photo opportunity outside we headed in. The tour itself is hurried in order to cover the significance of the artwork on the ceiling, the numerous statues and, interestingly, the echoing effect on the old representatives’ chamber that forced them to move to a more fitting home. We also saw the old Supreme Court building in the basement of Congress.

Given the brevity of our stay in Washington we could not visit the entire Smithsonian and settled on the Air and Space Museum as the most popular. We really enjoyed seeing the shuttles and learning about the history of the space race, and, while in the museum, we were able to see the American Treasures exhibition that includes the original C3PO and R2D2 from Star Wars, the counter where the first ‘sit-in’ for the civil rights movement was held and Kermit the Frog. The day was topped with a trip to the National Archives to see the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence. The reverence ordinary Americans pay to these documents is admirable and being able to look down at the original words that defined the core of American democracy was a highlight of the trip.

All in all the trip to America was an outstanding success despite a few mishaps, some extremely cold weather and Miss Cooper’s declaration that taking sixth formers abroad is more trouble than it’s worth.  It allowed us to immerse ourselves in American culture, get to grips with the nation’s proud history and its political system and come to appreciate the diversity of the world’s only hyper-power. Yet, despite its influence and power, the trip reminded us that amongst the wealth and magnificence there is extreme poverty the like of which we are unaccustomed to in the UK. We left with a greater understanding of the roots and customs of a divided nation.

 
 
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
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