Every April, my school's eighth-grade class travels to Washington, D.C., for their class trip. It's a long ride from New Jersey, but it's always exciting to get to visit places so important in our history. One year back in the mid- eighties, history really came alive for my students. That was the year Robbie Brown was on a mission.
One by one, in the early morning darkness, my eighth-graders and I boarded the bus. When Robbie Brown got on, he was holding a four-inch pot with a white hyacinth. The delicate flowers were in full bloom. There was a small American flag stuck in the soil. Everyone asked Robbie what the flower was for. All he'd say was that he was on a mission.
Robbie became the talk of the bus. What mission was he on? Some of the girls in the back of the bus started spreading rumors. The hyacinth was really a present for Nancy Reagan, with whom Robbie was secretly in love.
He'd give it to her when we toured the White House. Or maybe it was a present for our tour guide, the pretty young woman in the front seat.
After a long ride, our bus finally arrived in Washington We stopped at the White House, got off the bus and went on the tour. The girls watched Robbie closely. But when we got back on the bus, Robbie was still carrying the flower.
We drove down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol Robbie carried the hyacinth with him on the Capitol tour. No one let Robbie get out of sight. What was his mission?
Around noon, we went to lunch. Robbie put the hyacinth down-just long enough to eat a burger and fries.
Next, we drove past the Washington Monument and around the Tidal Basin, where the famous cherry trees were in bloom. Everyone watched Robbie like a hawk at Arlington National Cemetery. He walked past JFK's grave, then down the stairs to Bobby Kennedy's grave. At the pool there, he put the plant down, cupped his hands, and scooped some water into the pot. Robbie left Arlington just the way he had entered it-plant in hand.
Finally, the bus drove back to Washington and let everyone off at the Lincoln Memorial. A sense of urgency filled Robbie's steps. Everyone followed as he headed down to the wall of the Vietnam War Memorial. He scanned the many names, then put the hyacinth down under one particular name.
Robbie turned to find his classmates watching with fascination. "So, what's the story?" one finally asked.
"My mother's sister is named Katie," Robbie began slowly. She fell in love with Chip. Chip would always send Katie white hyacinths for Easter. He'd get the bulbs from Holland and grow them himself in his garden. When they bloomed, he'd dig them up, put them in a pot, and give them to her.
"In 1965, Chip was drafted," Robbie went on. "The next year, he went to Vietnam. He never came back. Twenty years later, Aunt Katie still talks about Chip. This flower is from her to him. She asked me to leave it here."
We all walked back and boarded the bus. Nobody kidded Robbie about the flowers anymore. For a long time, even the girls in the back were strangely silent.
Many years have passed since then, and all those eighth-graders are now adults. They've probably all forgotten that the Washington Monument is 555 feet tall and that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated at Ford's Theater. But I'm sure they all remember a soldier named Chip, a white hyacinth and Robbie's mission.