‘A Train’ to Auburn

Last spring there was some comp time in my time-off queue to use, and, instead of sleeping in and doing squat, I woke up early-ish for the gym and headed off to Auburn, NY, for a Wednesday of historical proportions. The first stop was the Seward House Museum, NYS Equal Rights Heritage Center, Prison City Brewing for lunch, the Harriet Tubman National Historic Park, and finally Fort Hill Cemetery — yes, to visit and pay those respects to Seward and Tubman.

The purpose of my going to Auburn was for a few reasons. Although central New York has been my home for, like, forever, some places have been unintentionally ignored. There is a lot of history here. Sometimes a person has to tap into their home region’s roots to fully understand the greatness of why this place is still a chosen home.

Tapping into geographical roots a great thing to delve into, to step away from the present malarky for a greater understanding of what once was, but incorporating personal history into the mix makes the experience much greater. The primary intent was touring the Seward House Museum because a key to my past was connected to the place. There was research done prior to my visit, especially to make sure this tour was the right one. It was a perfect moment for me to step through the door as a walking surprise.

Seward House Museum, Spring 2019 [Photo by C. Malone]

Tests have never been my thing. When it came to projects or papers, I valiantly excelled. However, sitting down to study, to reread, to quiz myself, and repeat it all again — it was a struggle. It was in my junior year when my history teacher definitely challenged me and a written test was only part of the ordeal.

Gambling and bets have never been my things either. The chances, regardless of over-unders or chances or favors or whatever jargon is used, are always 50/50. It’s either a win or a loss. This is a passive aggressive way of being a “Negative Nancy” about games of chance. I’d don’t disagree with an argument you may have against my thoughts about this, and I’d put money down that you’d be right.

To an outsider, my history teacher could have been looked at as an interesting fellow. During the first couple classes and while taking attendance, he’d stop by student desks and place both hands firmly on the classroom furniture while looking at each high schooler in the eye while repeating each name three times. This, in fact, does help with memorizing. His cognitive-positive quirks were encouraged though literally asking or by demonstration for his students to use.

He did everything right. He didn’t educate us via the textbook. Where the text lacked, he supplemented with other information, texts, videos, and even walking history tours. Where some part of history affected West Genesee Senior High School, he brought us outside and around to parts of the building. Why? Because ducking and covering under desks wasn’t adequate safety decades ago.

Dance skims through the texts. [Photo by C. Malone]

Eleventh grade was United States History. I was lucky to have Mr. Dance for a full senior year, taking an elective called The ’60s in the first half and then economics to end the year and my high school years. By the time I walked the stage in a cap and gown, he and I had grown to know each other. He was one of the inspirations to pursue the since abandoned education major.

We sporadically kept in touch through the years and even grabbed a cup of coffee in Skaneateles at one point, and I, by happenstance, continually run into him and his wife.

Dance believed in me at a time in my life when I didn’t really believe in myself — Ah, those struggling teenage years! He also knew that I disliked tests. The tall, somewhat lanky man with faint salt-and-pepper hair stood in front of of the classroom and put me on the spot. He really did single me out. If I were to score an 85 or higher on the upcoming test, which focused on, from what can be recalled, the 1920s and ’30s, he’d sing “Take the ‘A’ Train” a capella-style in front of the class.

Take the ‘A’ Train” is one of the most notable tunes by Duke Ellington and his orchestra. It was composed in 1939 by Billy Strayhorn and recorded in the early ’40s by Ellington. In 2000, it was covered by a high school history teacher in Camillus, NY, because I scored an 88 on a test.

Then, 20 years later from the first moment I stepped into the U.S. History classroom, I’m still being taught by a master educator. He still quizzed me and put me on the spot in front of a couple kids and their grandmother. (Frankly, it was nice to have a small tour group. The previous two groups were packed.) Dance also explained to the kids that I was once was a student of his. Technically, I think I still am. And I hope that little tidbit stuck with them.

Why does anyone need a classroom when we have places like the Seward House Museum, NYS Equal Rights Heritage Center, and the Harriet Tubman National Historic Park — and, yes, the cemetery as well — only a walk or short drive away? Especially when we can have that almost serendipitous opportunity of being taught by people who affected life in a positive way. Parts of life do come full circle. Thankfully, in some regard, circles are never-ending.

The two of us caught up after the tour, of course, reminiscing and laughing in the foyer. The rest of the day was intense with thorough information, thoughtful conversation, and it was even mentally exhausting by the end of it.

For those who haven’t checked out any of these spots, you’re missing out, especially the Harriet Tubman House, which featured one of the most charismatic historical talks.

Stay exploring.

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