I was barely 12 years old the first time that I actually sat down and pondered the Declaration of Independence; and, I have to admit it was only because of my teacher, Mrs. Jenkins. She had given the class an assignment to write a poem or essay about the signing of that historic document and what freedom as our birthright meant.
I sat at the kitchen table waiting for inspiration by reciting all 128 lines of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Midnight Ride of Paul Revere that Mrs. Lampley had our class memorize and recite the previous year.
“Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.”
I can tell you that it was a most dramatic rendition of the poet’s classic tale. It wasn’t long before I was on my feet, gesticulating broadly and galloping around the table for added effect. There may even have been a makeshift dishcloth cloak involved.
One if by land, and two if by sea;
And I on the opposite shore will be,
Ready to ride and spread the alarm
Through every Middlesex village and farm,
For the country folk to be up and to arm.”
… Then I glanced around the room furtively and lowered my voice as I recited the ominous parts.
“A moment only he feels the spell
Of the place and the hour, and the secret dread
Of the lonely belfry and the dead…
And the meeting-house windows, black and bare,
Gaze at him with a spectral glare,
As if they already stood aghast
At the bloody work they would look upon…
And one was safe and asleep in his bed
Who at the bridge would be first to fall,
Who that day would be lying dead,
Pierced by a British musket ball…”
Eventually, I worked my way back into my chair as I concluded my recitation.
“You know the rest. In the books you have read
How the British Regulars fired and fled…
So through the night rode Paul Revere;
And so through the night went his cry of alarm
To every Middlesex village and farm,—
A cry of defiance, and not of fear,
A voice in the darkness, a knock at the door,
And a word that shall echo for evermore!...”
That was it, I settled on penning a poem. Armed with the same bravado of youth that had enabled me to declare myself the Best Fly Swatter in the World a few years earlier, I calculated that if Longfellow could write a famous poem, then, surely, so could I. How hard could it be?
I concentrated and marshaled all my knowledge of the American Revolution. That took all of six or seven minutes and then I proceeded to make it rhyme: Brave people crossed a sea to settle in a land where they could be free… You get the idea. Thirty minutes later, I signed my “masterpiece” with a flourish and ran off to play.
Fast forward several months to a springtime special school assembly featuring the local chapter of The Daughters of the American Revolution. They had come to speak about the importance of the Declaration of Independence and make some special announcements.
We all looked at one another and shrugged our shoulders, clueless as to what our guest speaker meant. She went on to explain that she was at our school to recognize a student. “The first place winner in the poetry category for the state of Texas in the Daughters of the American Revolution contest, My Birthright Freedom, is… Carol Lynn Villarreal.” I looked around, shocked. That sounded like she said my name. My English teacher smiled at me and had to nudge me to go to the stage and accept my award.
It was a surreal moment. Unbeknownst to me, Mrs. Jenkins had submitted my class assignment as an entry in the contest; and amazingly, I had won first place for the State of Texas. I was shocked and speechless…a rare occasion for someone known for being “quite social” during class.
Dazed, I walked back to my seat, staring at the certificate which, at that moment, was as special to me as if I had been holding the actual Declaration of Independence. I felt like a patriot. I felt proud.
Many years have passed since that memorable day. The other night, I went searching in the box that holds my childhood treasurers: a tin of marbles (the ones my brother didn’t manage to “steal” from me), an autograph book from the 4th grade, report cards, notes we passed in class, awards, and yes, the poem I wrote all those years ago and the certificate that it earned me.
I reread it through my adult eyes and it was…perfectly horrible. Believe me, Longfellow would never have lost any sleep over the “competition.” But I will say this, there was something profound in the truthful, albeit ineloquent, simplicity of the message: There were those who bravely risked all to defy tyranny and hand us a birthright of freedom.
My understanding has deepened over the years as maturity has allowed me to appreciate the complexity of risk and sacrifice that culminated in The Declaration of Independence.
The men who signed their names believed that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
And since that document was signed on July 4, 1776, there have been countless men and women who have sacrificed to ensure that those blessings of liberty are more than mere words written on a piece of paper.
On this July 4th, I’d like to thank Mrs. Jenkins for sparking a young girl’s imagination and love of country.
Carol Bush serves as the County Judge of Ellis County.