After Reading ‘Finest Hours,’ Kids Honor Local Heroes

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Monomoy Regional Middle School , Local History

With Mass. National Guard Staff Sgt. Jeremy Armstrong of Harwich are (from left, back row) Aiden Hindle-White, Shanece James, Christiano Cheron, Cameron McCutcheon and (front row) Lilly Furman and Braden Burke.  ALAN POLLOCK PHOTO

CHATHAM Teaching middle school students about heroic figures in history can be a dry proposition; after all, it was a long, long time ago that Washington crossed the Delaware. But working with local first responders and the co-author of “The Finest Hours,” Monomoy Middle School teachers have found a way to bring history to life.

For the second year, Monomoy sixth graders read the young reader version of the book that chronicles the historic rescue of 32 men from the stern section of the tanker Pendleton by Coast Guardsmen from Chatham in 1952. They took part in a series of field trips, meeting today’s Coast Guard crew and touring the lighthouse at Station Chatham, talking with fishermen about what it’s like to navigate Chatham Bar, learning about ship-to-shore radios at the Marconi Center, and seeing the mock-up of the CG36500 at the Atwood House Museum.

“We wanted to connect our kids with the history and geography of our local area,” Principal Mark Wilson said. Students even had the chance to meet with some of the family members of survivors of the Pendleton rescue, he added. “It just makes local history really come to life,” Wilson said.

But to really understand heroism, kids were introduced to real-life heroes from the community: police, firefighters and members of the military. Groups of children were paired with a hero, who talked about the work they do saving lives and preserving the peace, English teacher Elizabeth Bourget said. Students interviewed their heroes, researched their occupations, and assembled a final project in the form of a digital presentation or a scrapbook.

Last Friday, marking the end of the unit, students filled both screening rooms at the Chatham Orpheum Theatre for a showing of “The Finest Hours,” with an introduction by co-author Casey Sherman “to get everyone excited about the movie,” Bourget said. After seeing the film, the students went to a special luncheon at Chatham Bars Inn, where they shared their final projects with their heroes and with each other. For the students, it was the culmination of weeks of hard work. For the honorees, it was a meaningful experience.

Harwich Fire Chief Norman Clarke said the wall of his office is decorated with certificates and various honors from his years in the fire service, “but this is the most important thing I’ve ever been given,” he said, motioning to the sixth graders’ project.

Bourget said organizing the luncheon was a bit like planning a wedding with 185 guests. She thanked local restaurants for donating the food, Chatham Bars Inn for hosting the event, and the Art of Charity Foundation and the Chatham Friends of Trees for their financial support. Bourget also praised the heroes for spending time with students and sharing their stories.

“Everyone has been incredibly generous,” she said. “Our community is full of local heroes.”