Hoping history will rub off

SUN JOURNAL

Tours: For a quarter-century, a California teacher has brought students east to make book learning come to life.

April 28, 2003|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - As history teacher Eric Fries tours the nation's capital with a group of eighth-grade students from Southern California - a spring break tradition for 25 years - he harbors a modest hope.

He hopes, as he does every year, that some of his enthusiasm for American history will rub off on the teen-agers, though he knows that many are distracted by the novelty of being thousands of miles away from their homes in suburban Los Angeles.

He hopes that some of the things they'll see on the eight-day East Coast trip - the Lincoln Memorial, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Gettysburg, the Statue of Liberty - will help bring to life the events and people they have been studying out of textbooks.

"The symbols of American history need to become more real," says Fries, a tireless 61-year-old with a booming voice and no-nonsense demeanor. "I think they do become more real when the kids actually see them."

For a quarter-century, Fries has spent spring vacations leading groups of students from Orange Grove Middle School on such tours. This trip will be his last.

"Retirement is really beckoning to me," he says. "I'm getting a lot of signs that this decision is right. It's a good, round number, a quarter of a century."

Though Fries has occasionally changed the itinerary - substituting Baltimore's Fort McHenry for Jamestown, Va., for example - he has never canceled a trip, not after Sept. 11 or the outbreak of war in Iraq.

Though many schools banned visits to Washington, New York and other cities, Fries told students and parents that he would not cancel as long as commercial planes continued to fly.

"There's a lot of people who don't leave their house because they're afraid there's going to be an earthquake," Fries says. "I don't even think about earthquakes."

His intrepid attitude seems to be rubbing off on the students as they explore Washington one afternoon last week. They express no fears about visiting the capital.

"I thought it'd be safe because Mr. Fries knows what he's doing," says Vanessa Alcala. "If there was danger, he'd know."

Under a sprinkling rain, the group of 20 boys and 24 girls waits for tour guides to lead them through a security checkpoint on the south side of the Capitol.

Public tours had been suspended since March 21, a day after U.S.-led coalition forces began bombing Iraq. The group had gained access by asking their congresswoman, Grace F. Napolitano, to sponsor the visit.

"We had a hard time getting this tour," says Joanie Pappas, a travel agent Fries has used for years, as she waits with the group. "I started months in advance, and it was finally confirmed a month ago. That's the only way you can do it."

Inside, tour guide Elizabeth Johnson tells the students they will be unable to visit the galleries where lawmakers hold sessions.

"The House and the Senate are gone for spring break," Johnson says. "Unfortunately, since the war started, we cannot go up to the gallery unless they're in session."

Johnson ticks off other things that will be off-limits: the original Declaration of Independence at the National Archives (closed for renovations), and the Old Senate Chamber (closed since Sept. 11). "I'm so sorry, kids," Johnson says.

Fries appears upset that the Old Senate Chamber, his favorite room in the Capitol, has not been reopened to the public.

"The whole security shake-up has changed everything," he says.

The guide leads the boys, who have been separated from the girls, into the Rotunda. Sneakers squeak on the stone floor.

"This is what you call a fresco," Johnson says, pointing to the painting on the ceiling of the dome, 180 feet above. Twenty heads, most of them topped with spiky, gelled hair, obediently turn to look up at The Apotheosis of Washington.

Next, the group huddles around a spot in Statuary Hall as the guide whispers at a corresponding spot on the other side of the semicircular chamber.

"Can you hear me, California?" Johnson says softly.

The question, magnified by the acoustics of the vaulted ceiling, rings clear and loud. The kids enjoy the demonstration, rewarding Johnson with exclamations of "Whoa!" and "Cool!"

Fries pauses to recount the legend that John Quincy Adams, who sat on one side of the room when it was the old House of Representatives chamber, made use of the phenomenon to spy on the opposition.

"Isn't that amazing?" Fries asks the group. "It's an acoustical freak."

By the time they walk out of the Capitol an hour later, the students show signs of wear. Some yawn and complain of exhaustion. Others hang over a balustrade or sit on a stairway, only to be shooed along.

Fries scolds them.

"I've done all this before," he says. "Who am I doing this for?"

"Us," the students answer sheepishly.

As they wait for their bus, some students talk about things they look forward to seeing on the rest of the trip. For Nic Hanacek, it is Gettysburg, the stop on Day 6 of the trip. Elizabeth Chavez clings to the hope of spotting the president before the group leaves the capital and heads north.

Arranging such a sighting is probably beyond even Fries' abilities. But when he can do it, he goes out of his way to show his students what he thinks every citizen ought to see.

When the Statue of Liberty was closed for renovations in the mid-1980s, Fries took students on a ferry ride past the scaffolding-covered monument.

"I said, `This is one of the great symbols of America, and you kids are going to see it up close,'" he recalls.

Last year, New York City police banged on the side of the bus as it drove slowly past Ground Zero and students leaned out of windows to take pictures.

"They said, `This isn't a tourist attraction,'" Fries says. "They gave it to us for doing that."

But he says he will try to make the same detour on this trip.

"This is an incident that affected the whole world. For me, that was history," he says. "What is history but news over all time?"

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