Tag Archives: Boston

This Day in History 12/16: The Boston Tea Party

"The Destruction of Tea at Boston Harbor&...

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Today’s story is not about 342 chests of tea dumped into a harbor.

It is not about Sons of Liberty, Samuel Adams or John Hancock.

It is not about Committees of Correspondence, Mohawks or tarring and feathering.

And it sure as hell isn’t about any American Revolution.

Instead, this is about how a seemingly insignificant everyday citizen helped resurrect a central moment in American history.

On December 16, 1773, after a pre-approved signal from a protest meeting in Faneuil Hall in Boston, a group of colonists dressed as “Mohawks” (or what they thought were Mohawks) dumped 342 chests of tea from three ships anchored in Boston harbor.

The act was triggered by the Tea Act of 1773, a new British law giving the British East India Company a monopoly on the tea trade in the colonies, providing cheaper tea and undercutting local smugglers. The colonial governor, Thomas Hutchinson, ordered that tea from incoming ships be unloaded, against the wishes of Boston citizens who wanted none of it.

Unlike other governors who negotiated with colonists and ship owners to reach a compromise on the tea, Hutchinson was playing hardball with the colonists, many of whom had various motives. Some were genuinely concerned about taxation without representation. Others were pissed that their smuggling operations were being sabotaged by legitimate enterprise.

Whatever their reasons, the dumping of the tea galvanized and hardened both sides. Britain closed the port of Boston, suspended the colonial charter and placed Massachusetts under martial law. The colonists stockpiled weapons. British soldiers attempt to seize colonial munitions at Concord…

…you know the rest of the story.

This is all common knowledge today. Yet a half-century afterwards, the events of Boston were dying along with the remaining descendants of the Revolution. The Boston Tea Party, the act of vandalism that helped trigger the American Revolution, would have been lost—if not for a poor centenarian shoemaker and widower from upstate New York.

George Robert Twelves Hewes was the son of a poor tanner in Boston’s South End. As a poor shoemaker and active Son of Liberty, Hewes was present at the Boston Massacre (where he was injured by the butt of a British rifle), at a tarring and feathering (where he was bashed by a cane on his head) and the “Tea Party” itself (he was a boatswain on one of the boarding crews, due to his “whistling” ability.).

During the war, he served on privateer ships and did two stints in the Massachusetts militia. Then, during the next 50 years, Hewes lived the unremarkable life of a poor shoemaker, first in Wrentham, Massachusetts and finally in Otsego County, New York.

Yet a chance encounter in 1833 would change Hewe’s life—and the memory of the Boston Tea Party.

James Hawkes was an author who encountered the now widowed Hewes in Richfield Springs, New York. The moment was all too important: Hewes was among the last survivors of the Revolution. Hawkes would publish a biography, A Retrospect of the Boston Tea-Party. It was soon followed by Benjamin Bussey Thatcher’s Traits of the Tea Party.

Both books revived the age-old events in Boston, and made the humble shoemaker a celebrity in his nineties.

Hewes took a publicity tour of New England, and was guest of honor at speeches and banquets throughout the region. He charmed throngs with his polite demeanor, plainspokenness and an uncanny memory that never failed him.

Even though he wasn’t a big player, Hewes was celebrated as being a witness—and an accurate one—of the pivotal events in the Revolution. It was the culmination of a renewed interest in the period in the 1820s and 1830s, as Americans saw the last of the Revolutionary generation pass away—as Hewes would in 1840.

Yet most importantly, Hewes himself set out the details of that night in Boston when the tea was dumped.

It was a night that neither Hewes nor anyone else at the time called a “tea party,” but rather the “destruction of the tea.”

It took later authors to make the vandalism a bit more…festive.


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This Day in History 9/1: The First running US subway opens in Boston

Flying junction on the Tremont Street Subway a...

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It’s a system that’s younger than London’s, older than New York’s, and best known as the setting of a oft-sung folk ditty…

A ditty customarily sung under the influence.

On September 1, 1897, the Tremont Street Subway opened in Boston, the first fully functioning subway in the United States. Today, this original tunnel forms part of the Green Line of Boston’s subway system, or “T” as it is known locally.

Like its famous streets, Boston’s mass transit history was haphazard at best, with breaks and bends along the way. The Tremont Street line was, funny enough, not designed as a mass transit system. Rather, it was a way for city fathers to cut back on trolley lines on the surface. In fact, the first subway cars in Boston were trolleys, powered by overhead wires.

By 1947, the Tremont Line was folded into the Metropolitan Transit Authority or MTA—today known as the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority or MBTA. In order to increase fare revenue without updating equipment, the MTA instituted an “exit fare” of a nickel. Only by paying this fare could a rider leave the system and return to the surface.

This practice inadvertently spawned the Boston subway’s most famous legacy—“MTA” or as it is commonly known, “Charlie on the MTA.”

In 1949, Walter O’Brien ran as the Progressive Party candidate for mayor of Boston. One of his major campaign promises was to remove the exit fare system (a system so complicated that it required a nine-page booklet to explain it all). Unable to afford radio ad time, O’Brien enlisted local folk singers to write and sing campaign songs from a truck with a loudspeaker as it careened through Boston’s windy streets.

The best known of these campaign songs attacked the exit fare system with a curious predicament. Jacqueline Steiner and Bess Lomax Hawes wrote “MTA” using the tunes of earlier ballads like “The Ship that Never Returned” and “The Wreck of the Old 97.” The song featured Charlie, an unfortunate Bostonian who boards a Boston subway car without the required exit fare. Since he can’t pay to get out, poor Charlie is doomed to spend his days on the subway as it speeds past station after station.

The song has since become legendary in Boston folklore—even if its original intent has been lost to younger generations. It’s been recorded numerous times and often been the basis of numerous sing-alongs in bars from Marblehead to the Cape. Even the MBTA got into the act, naming its electronic-based fare-collection system the “CharlieCard.”

Attached is the most famous recording of the song, by the Kingston Trio in 1959. They changed the name of the candidate to George O’Brien, since the aforementioned Walter was perceived by many as a Socialist—an obvious faux pas in the paranoid 50s.

I also included a modern rendition and a personal favorite, “Skinhead on the MBTA” by the Dropkick Murphys. It’s not for everyone, but who cares? Enjoy.


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The Smart Kid’s Burden: The “Raj” of Teach for America

“Take up the White Man’s burden—
    Send forth the best ye breed—
Go, bind your sons to exile
    To serve your captives’ need;
To wait, in heavy harness,
    On fluttered folk and wild—
Your new-caught sullen peoples,
    Half devil and half child.” – “White Man’s Burden”, 1st Stanza, Rudyard Kipling

Inner city children of America, “half-devil and half-child,” fear no more.  Dr. Livingston is here and he’s got a protractor.

The good folks at Teach for America are here to give you the education only privileged children can obtain.  Why, in only two years, your little urchin can rise to drink gin fizzes at the Porcellian Club at Harvard, hobnob at the eating clubs of Princeton, or stand around Yale looking morose.  All he/she needs to do is sit up straight, throw his/her cultural identity out the window and do exactly what these fresh-faced go-getters tell you to do.

Why does it work?  Because even though they have no certification, no teaching degree and a grand total of five weeks of training, they are better than your teacher.  They are better than your principal.  They are better than you–because their bachelor’s degree has more Latin scribble on it than other people.   

Utter nonsense.

I have had a huge stick in my craw about TFA for quite a while.  When I was undergoing summer training as a New York City Teaching Fellow, I’d run into these guys every once in a while.  They were all glassy-eyed and full of chants and whistles and sunbeams–as if Cat Stevens taught freshman English.  Many of them looked down on us because we were pursuing teaching seriously, as a profession, while they were enjoying their two-year safari among the natives teaching them stuff without making sure the kids are actually learning something. 

I often ran into these folks later in the year, at seminars and such.  They all have that look like Michael Caine at the end of Zulu.  One more massive attack by the Zulus and they’d be sprawling on the floor with spears in their bellies.  The look of horror in their eyes–I felt bad for them, but also kind of pleased.  Those preppie punks had it coming.

The Boston teacher’s union agrees.  Today’s Boston Globe has a story about a letter sent to TFA from the union in Boston, urging them to not send recruits into their school system, citing that their personnel unfairly take positions away from tenured faculty who have been excessed due to the financial situation.  Boston schools will have anywhere from 100-200 openings due to retirement and resignation, yet there is still the threat of layoffs because of the numbers of “surplus” faculty available.  According to the union, TFA would only make matters worse.

Many critics of the union say that this is simply a tactic to keep unqualified, failing teachers on the payroll and maintain union membership.  They also cite studies showing gains in performance in schools that hire TFA personnel.  The program got a huge boost from President Obama’s call for public service, as applications to the program rose 42%  this year.

Let me be clear: I am not in the business of defending the union blindly.  If the teachers proved to be substandard, or “failing”, then they probably should go, provided all avenues have been exhausted.  Even among veteran faculty, there are those who have survived in the system by doing just enough to not get hassled.  Obviously, these people do the profession no service.

However, if enhanced teacher quality and teacher retention are the goal, then Teach for America is the wrong way to go.  President Obama, I admire your zeal for improving education, but TFA is an antiquated “colonialist” relic.  It is simply a stopgap measure to fill vacancies where more qualified people do not want to go.  It is not designed to produce highly skilled or effective teachers, but rather intellectual missionaries sent to preach to the unwashed masses and hand out Norton’s Anthology of English Literature before going to an investment banking  job readying the next recession.

Teach For America is inherently flawed for a number of reasons.  Let’s begin with recruitment.  While the program attracts the best and brightest college seniors, it does not necessarily choose people who will be good teachers.  Education is not solely about knowing the material in a textbook–otherwise, we would just have students in massive rooms with headphones listening to James Earl Jones reading a trigonometry book (wouldn’t his voice lend weight to Pythagora’s theorem?).  Teachers wear many hats: lecturer, facilitator, disciplinarian, actor, storyteller, etc.  A good teacher understands his/her class and adapts to meet the needs of the students.  Not every brainiac or J. Crew-wearing co-ed can do this.

The two-year commitment is a joke.  I have been teaching for five years, and am considered a “master” teacher, according to the education establishment.  Yet I’m still clueless about lots of aspects of this vocation.  Ask me to schedule a field trip…I’ll guarantee something will go wrong.  And this after FIVE years of study and on-the-job experience.  These TFA guys are out the door before they even begin to realize what they entered in the first place.

Another fault lies in training.  TFA recruits go through an “intensive” program for five weeks in the summer.  This will prepare them for decorating their room, writing in their plan book, taking attendance and getting kids to and from lunch.  It does not prepare them for teaching.  Teaching is a craft that takes years of study and apprenticeship to master: you cannot take a crash course for this.  Not only will it make the TFA-er look like a fool, but it hurts the students by depriving them of quality teaching.

Many deride the program as “Teach for a While” for good reason.  There is no incentive to retain teachers in TFA after their commitment is done.  I’m lucky in that I entered a program where the city payed for my Masters Degree–a huge incentive to stay in education, plus a requirement of a certified teacher.  Furthermore, I’ve met people in different aspects of education that have helped foster lasting connections to improve instruction and programs for children.  The TFA’ers have no such thing to keep them here, hence their reputation as hired mercenaries who enter corporate America after their stint.  If the President was serious about education, he should be invested in programs that not only train teachers efficiently, but also provide benefits to stay in the profession.

Yet, the last is probably the worst flaw of all–and President Obama should be ashamed to back TFA because of it.  Harkening back to Kipling and the rest of the pith-helmet crowd, TFA is often a divisive influence in education because of its very culture.   For many years, Teach for America has instilled in recruits the sense that they are better than the teachers in their schools, who often have years of experience, simply because of their educational background.   If George W. Bush is any indicator, an Ivy League education can be obtained by both brainiacs and boneheads–depending on the trust fund.

This attitude trickles down to the students, as TFA recruits lord their knowledge over underprivileged students who couldn’t care less.  Why won’t Jose read the material?  Why can’t Johnny solve a simple algebra problem?  The answer is simple: TFA’s chauvinist mentality places an extreme disconnect between teacher and student.  These run-and-gun intellectual missionaries never bother to get to know the areas or the students they encounter every day.  Why should they?  They’ll be making six figures at Swindle & Embezzle, LLC or some other bloated bank soon, so why bother making sure these “savages” learn?

I’ve learned one immutable fact in my years in the classroom: You learn just as much from your students as they learn from you.  If you just listen to your kids, look at what they do and see what they see, they will tell you what they need to know.  Not only that, listening to students will tell you HOW to teach them–and not to lord over their ignorance. 

Lastly, this is like being a priest or a cop.  Teaching is a vocation–if you’re in it, you better be in it for the long haul.  If not, you’re of no use to anyone. If TFA’ers cannot make the commitment, they are no help. 

Maybe they should actually do something more constructive, like killing lions in Kenya wearing a monocle.


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