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 A Letter to My Students by Dr. Tom Westerman

After Upper School History teacher Dr. Tom Westerman learned that Porter-Gaud would finish the school year virtually, he penned a letter to his students. We hope you enjoy his poignant and heartfelt sentiments. 

Dear Students,

Well, school is “closed” for the rest of the year. We knew it was even before the official announcement by the governor and our head of school. But it’s different now that we know for sure. And it sucks. (Yes, I’m a teacher and I just said “sucks.” But, hey, I Zoom to you from the one clean corner of my house and our classes are interrupted by my kids. So, let’s say it’s okay.) Of course, school isn’t really “closed” for us. We’re lucky that we can continue to work on content and skills, but more importantly continue our conversations and community a few times a week. It’s better than nothing and I cherish the virtual time we have together. 

I’m not here to tell you to look on the bright side. Nah, you’re losing too much. You’re losing and missing learning, personal contact, Prom, sports, (detention?), graduation, and so much more. This isn’t ideal. It’s not normal. But it is what it is and we persevere. Your perseverance through this has greatly impressed me. 

In class, I speak a lot about how “everything has a history” and “everything is a source.” We’re always living history, though sometimes it’s hard to really understand that when life seems typical or humdrum from our own perspective. Well, take a look around right now. You’re living history right now. This is one of those world-historical events that gets a lot of treatment in your textbook and in a teacher’s lesson planning. You, yes you, are a primary source to this time. Every TikTok, every social media post, anything you create and everything you remember and tell to someone a year, 5, 10, 20, or 50 years from now are primary sources. That’s really cool. (And a little terrifying, but cooler.)

Remember when I had you read that letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams and focused on what Abigail was saying and experiencing about the independence movement? Remember when I had you read about the gold diggers in California and the conditions they experienced in their small house? Remember the pictures of the Dust Bowl I had you analyze? Remember all those other sources from ordinary people I had you read, discuss, and use in those DBQs? Yeah, guess what, your texts, posts, Instagram pictures are the sources your children and their children can use to understand the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020. (Yes, I understand privacy settings and all that, but you get what I’m saying about what we all create now and pass on to others….)

History has always been happening around you. I also have always told you to respect the sources we read, to be fair to their creators, and to place them into the larger context of the time we were studying. As an exercise, do that with the next text you send or get, the next social media post you read or write, and the next story you tell someone about what you did on day 20 of quarantine. You’re a primary source in the long history of humanity! You always were, but I hope you see it more clearly now. The ups and downs of this time are part of the bigger story of our shared history. 

Everyone’s experience during this time matters. Everyone’s story matters. See that’s why I had you read so many different kinds of sources. Yeah, the words of the president or governor or whoever matter and are important, but so were the words of the “ordinary” people we looked at to see the so-called “lived experience” of the time. That’s you! You are living this experience, so your lived experience is valuable for future historians to know what all this was about and, especially, how we all got through it. 

So, that’s all from me, your history teacher avoiding grading just like I did before the pandemic. Thank you for not only being my history students this year; thank you for being my fellow history participants during this daring and dizzying time. Be Kind. Be Curious. Work Hard. Be Safe.

- Dr. Westerman



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