Students visit cemetery, pay respects to veterans

FAIRFIELD — Most kids probably think cemeteries are a little creepy. But the fifth graders at Fairfield Center School learned Thursday that the graves of those now passed can be the window into history, family, community and a better understanding of Memorial Day.

Carrying a small, American flags in each hand, the students in Bet Howrigan’s class marched the half-mile or so from school to St. Patrick’s Cemetery Thursday afternoon. As they walked, Howrigan led everyone in singing the national anthem and other patriotic songs.

Once in the cemetery, Howrigan asked the students to say the Pledge of Allegiance and to observe a moment of silence before proceeding.

“This is our remembrance of those who served our country and our town,” said Howrigan. She advised the students to look around at the sunny day, grassy fields and mountains beyond to think about what’s been preserved for their generation.

Howrigan then showed students how to place flags at the U.S. war veterans markers located next to 60 or so graves. In addition to leaving flags, Howrigan asked the students to record the names on the tombstones.

Students scattered throughout the cemetery, finding markers, names and interesting historical facts.

“I found a veteran!” one student, Kyle Irish, said. He noticed as he put his flag into the marker at Marcel J. Gonyeau’s tombstone, Gonyeau’s death date – May 11, 1990 – was on the same day at Irish’s birthday.

Another student, Madison St. Pierre, walked into the smaller Barlow cemetery next to St. Patrick’s with special educator Kelsey Malboeuf. They noticed that many of the graves, all dating from the 1860s, were slightly disturbing due to the young age of the person when he or she was buried.

“We were just saying how young all the kids were when they died,” said Malboeuf. She and St. Pierre discussed why that was – lack of modern medicine, poor hygiene, etc. – and how things have changed.

When the students finished distributing their flags, Howrigan called them back to demonstrate how to do a headstone rubbing. Using crayons and paper, she made a rubbing of a cross, and encouraged students to find interesting impressions to record.

Before sending them off, Howrigan reminded the students of where they were and to be respectful.

“These are family members, these are town members,” said Howrigan.

“You are careful not to color on the headstones,” she added.

Aside from those rules, Howrigan invited her students to explore the cemetery. It’s an educational experience, she said, and can make Memorial Day much more meaningful than just talking about it.

“I’m a strong believer in: you tell them, they forget, you teach them, they might remember, you involve them, they might understand,” said Howrigan. “There’s so much history to learn.”

She added that students often ask their families to visit a cemetery outside of class, on their vacation day on Memorial Day.

“It’s a great learning experience for all of them,” Howrigan said. “Some of them have never been to a cemetery.”

As a fifth grade teacher, she has been taking students to place flags at St. Patrick’s Cemetery for more than 20 years, and before that, her mother-in-law did it. In the week prior, Howrigan said the class discusses Memorial Day, its meaning, and who it’s meant to honor.

“This is like, 45 years of this,” she said. “It’s a tradition.”

In addition to remembering veterans no longer alive, Howrigan said she helps her students think about the present day, too. “We also talk about the people who are still serving [in the military],” she said. “Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day – I think we tend to lose sight of the real meaning.”

Howrigan plans to continue the lesson on Tuesday with some reflective writing exercises and continued discussion about Memorial Day. It’s all in an effort to connect the holiday to the students, right there in Fairfield.

“We try to make it so that they understand its not just ‘out there’ and that it comes home somehow,” said Howrigan. “It affects all of us.”