From Sea to Shining Sea: A Sabbatical Journey Into American History

By Jack Stedman

What do teachers do on sabbatical, anyway? It's a lot more than just a break from the demands of the classroom. 

A sabbatical is a period of paid leave for teachers or professors to travel and study. Commonwealth School teachers go on sabbatical to explore their intellectual interests and enrich their pedagogical practices so they can return as even more effective educators.

For history teacher and alumna Melissa Glenn Haber '87, who recently returned from a semester-long sabbatical, the enrichment came in the form of travelling across the United States. What better way to examine the history of this country than to visit the places where history has been made, to experience the peoples and cultures that make us who we are? 

Along the way, Ms. Haber discovered new facets of the United States and stood in the historic places that fill her lesson plans, giving her a broadened perspective on the subject she's made her life's work.

50 in 50

It all started with a milestone and a goal: 50 in 50. 

Ms. Haber planned to visit every state the year she turned 50, and the journey actually began in the summer of 2019, well before the official sabbatical term. She took off across the northern edge of the country, traveling from Minnesota to Washington before flying up to Alaska. Upon returning home, the northeast states, easily accessible even during the school year, were then checked off one by one. A fall semester at Commonwealth came and went, and her sabbatical officially began.

In February 2020, Ms. Haber and her husband, Ezra Haber Glenn '87, booked a train ticket to Florida and set off with a list of destinations both serious (New Echota, the Cherokee capital in Georgia; The Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama) and whimsical (Elvis Presley's home at Graceland; Pegasus and the Dragon, the third-tallest statue in the U.S.). While these stops were key parts of her itinerary, Ms. Haber also had a central vision: "the walk down Main Street," or the idea that spontaneous strolls and random adventures would help her discover what she really needed to know about the U.S.

Ms. Haber did make it to see the (admittedly, underwhelming) statue of Pegasus and the Dragon, but her trip was soon derailed by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March, just two weeks after leaving for Florida.

Her goal of traversing the rest of the country yielded to necessary travel precautions. But instead of packing it up and calling it quits, Ms. Haber and her husband decided to quarantine in one new place so as to follow all health guidelines. Ultimately, they chose Fruita, Colorado, and stayed there for two months.

Main Street, USA

Staying put in Colorado was a dizzying shift after many months and a mindset of constant movement. Ms. Haber and her husband had already experienced a whirlwind of American history: They visited sites of the ancient Mississippian and Pueblo cultures. Visited Graceland and the Lorraine Hotel. Saw the Oklahoma City bombing memorial and the statue to the Little Rock Nine. Stopped at the graves of Ms. Haber's childhood heroes, Woody Guthrie and Laura Ingalls Wilder. Walked on the red clay of Georgia and the red clay of the Ozarks and the red clay of Oklahoma and the red clay of Texas. 

But the shift to sudden stillness turned out to be crucial. Ms. Haber didn't know it at first, but she needed to be in one place and to know that one place intimately.

"We had a different life entirely: we got to learn for a brief moment until it's forgotten again about the deep pleasures of staying still," Ms. Haber recounted. "That nutshell held infinite space... the great pleasure of those weeks was not only seeing how much of it we could see on our own four feet, but how much we could learn how it connected together." Like traversing the many trails of the Colorado National Monument, piecing together paths through the canyon. 

The combination of the intimate local Main Street and the sublime scenes of places like New Echota gifted Ms. Haber with an experience that offered novel and oftentimes surprising views on this land and its history. 

Historical Shades and Shadows

In her many travels, Ms. Haber was able to connect with the places and people she has been teaching about for more than a decade, standing in the very places that have defined the American experience—for better or worse.

She visited Cherokee sites and learned that the Native Americans sung Amazing Grace and other white Christian songs along the Trail of Tears. She went to New Mexico and learned that the Civil War was fought there despite it being outside of what we think of as the theater of the war. 

She stood on the street in Montgomery, Alabama, where Rosa Parks got on the bus and realized that if you looked down the road a few blocks, you see places where then-presidential candidate George Wallace gave speeches supporting segregation and Jim Crow laws. There, she also discovered that halfway between that capitol building on the hill and the bus stop, just ten blocks away, was the Dexter Avenue Church—Dr. King's church. She went there, and, inside, she sang Amazing Grace. In these sacred moments and spaces, Ms. Haber became the student of U.S. history. 

"As for what the sabbatical did for me and let me see and taste and smell and feel, well... it's hard to find words to sum up even a fraction of my gratitude for that experience," she said.

So what does Ms. Haber's trip mean for Commonwealth and its students? It's all about expanding the curriculum and providing new opportunities: 

"I got to spend a lot of time thinking about the framing of the course. My students teach me so much that each subsequent year the course is informed by their insights. This was this first time in my twelve years of teaching that I've had the time to sit down and think about how all their insights and their questions—together with the reading I've been doing over that decade—come together." 

The Legacy Museum in Montgomery was another significant stop. Founded by Bryan Stevenson's Equal Justice Initiative, the museum aims to draw the clear links between slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration. Visiting the museum helped inspire Ms. Haber's new "U.S. History Since 1865" course at Commonwealth, which aims to look more deeply at the connections between race, capitalism, opportunity, and equality.

Ms. Haber says the new course might also be called "Reasons for History"—a spin on the English curriculum staple "Reasons for Writing"—because visiting the powerful places of our history forms a mental bridge, one where you stand in the present and feel the connection to the past. She hopes her students can do the same in this class. 

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