Thanks to an invitation from Sheila Dunec and Anna Eshoo's office, I was able to bring a number of my high school students from Eastside College Prep (in East Palo Alto) to the ceremony at Moffett Field. The real pleasure was overhearing them describe the experience to classmates and other teachers at school when we returned to campus.
The full pomp and pageantry of the band, the presentation of the colors, the formal introductions of the dignitaries and guest of honor, all of this was done to not only honor one hero, but the countless others, as Carl noted in his comments, who never received this recognition. Some of my students attend the same church as Carl, and many are his neighbors in Belle Haven.
As a history teacher, I often struggle to make history relevant and personal to the students' lives; as a government teacher, I often struggle to make the bureaucracy and mechanisms of government have a human face — one that makes mistakes, and also has the ability to rectify these mistakes. All of these things came together Jan. 17 in a hangar at Moffett Field. Carl Clark had no hatred, animosity, or bitterness in his words or his tone. He was not angry; he blamed no one. He was honored.
All of the students had incredible insights and observations about the beauty of the medal ceremony and how it made some injustices from history seem so real.
"A medal is no small thing," as one of my students observed on the drive back to school. "Well, okay, it is really a small thing, but you know what I mean, right?" She was impressed by the simplicity of the gesture — the secretary of the Navy pinning something on an old man's uniform — but saw in it something powerful. "They can't go back in time and make things right," she continued, "but I bet it takes a lot to get the United States to admit when they made a mistake!"
Another student noted that it was "just in time," referring to Carl's 95 years. This led to the best conversation of all. It is never too late to make amends, to tend to old wounds, to seek forgiveness and try to make things right.
It may have been "just in time" for Carl, but the mere action of awarding this distinction to a black man reminds students who are growing up in a country with a black president that the civil rights movement is not, in fact, over, but still working to right old wrongs. And hopefully they will take with them the image of a man of heroism and great dignity who proudly stands at attention and salutes his flag, despite the 66 years it took to get there.
Brian Belding lives on Laurel Avenue in Menlo Park. He teaches history and government, and is the boys' volleyball coach at Eastside College Preparatory School in East Palo Alto.