Learning from Lincoln

A new film follows a group of schoolboys as they learn President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address

Apr 15, 2014 | By TFK Kid Reporter Amelia Compton
LOIC VENANCE—AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Filmmaker Ken Burn's new documentary, The Address, airs April 15 on PBS.

“Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” So begins the Gettysburg Address, President Abraham Lincoln’s most famous speech. Lincoln gave the speech at a cemetery dedication for thousands of fallen Civil War soldiers in 1863. He was not the main speaker that day, and the speech lasted a mere two minutes. Still, Lincoln’s words made a lasting impression. They continue to inspire people today.

Filmmaker Ken Burns has made a documentary about the transformational experience of memorizing the Gettysburg Address. The Address, which airs April 15 on PBS, follows 50 boys from the Greenwood School in Putney, Vermont. The boys are between the ages of 11 and 17. Even though they struggle with learning difficulties, they are all memorizing the Gettysburg Address. For you or me, this might be a simple task. But for these boys it’s a tedious challenge.

“Our film is an uplifting story of these kids struggling to figure out the Address and the trials, tribulations and joy they experience along the way,” Burns told TFK.

Comforting Words

For more than 30 years, reciting the entire Gettysburg Address has been a rite of passage at the Greenwood School. It can take years to memorize for some students. Near the end of the school year, if the boys wish, they may recite the speech at a gala event to students and parents.

Many of the boys in the film were bullied in public school because of their learning differences. At the Greenwood School the boys learn they can be themselves and that they aren’t alone in the world.

“Words are medicine,” says Burns. “Lincoln in his speech talks about a new birth of freedom. What the Address memorization does for these boys is give them new freedom. It’s amazing that 150 years later these words can still have that kind of power.”

A Winning Battle

The Address is an inspiring film. It is uplifting to witness the boys’ struggles, both past and present, and how they battle to overcome them. Viewers may even find themselves cheering the boys on as they attempt to recite the speech.

Scenes of the boys doing everyday activities, such as sledding and playing music, help viewers to connect with them. The boys work, play, and struggle to overcome hardships just as we all do.

The best part? Reciting Lincoln’s words comes to symbolize hope and success for these boys.

“The Gettysburg Address will be on these kids’ hard drives, so to speak, for the rest of their lives,” said Burns. “It will be something they carry with enormous pride for the rest of their lives.”

If you too want to recite the Gettysburg Address and share your performance online, log on to www.learntheaddress.org. You can also watch videos of actors, including Whoopie Goldberg, Jerry Seinfeld, and Uma Thurman, reciting the speech. Former U.S. presidents Jimmy Carter, George Bush, Bill Clinton, and President Obama take part as well. Even Elmo takes a crack at the speech!