WESTERLY — A special field trip Wednesday got Westerly Middle School students, including Brooklyn Vacca, 12, to think about the real meaning of Memorial Day.
She was one of about 80 sixth-grade students in the school’s Anchors Team that fanned out around River Bend Cemetery in the morning to continue a tradition of decorating the graves of veterans who are interred there.
Each student placed a small flower, potted in a red plastic cup, at the base of a veteran’s headstone.
“Even though the people who served for us can’t see it, their relatives and other people can,” Vacca said. “Sometimes no one knows how much the veterans did for our country.”
And every cup also included a message written on a small paper American flag made by the students.
“We are proud to honor your memory and thank you for your service to our country,” was part of the message on every card.
Vacca marches every Memorial Day in a parade as a member of South County Movement Center. Her classmate, Abby Murphy, marched in the local parade as part of the Chorus of Westerly.
“People are thanking (veterans) now for what they did,” Murphy, 12, said.
Among the plots decorated with the flowers was that of J. Edward Tourtellotte, an enlisted man who served as a technician in the U.S. Army in World War II and who died in 1988. Another flower was placed next to the World War I veterans’ metal flag-holder for John Sutcliffe, who died in 1964.
The students found the resting places of the veterans easily, as new miniature American flags had been placed on the graves of many in anticipation of Memorial Day.
After the flower-placing walk around the cemetery, the students gathered at the Pawcatuck River and several read their own poems or short essays about Memorial Day.
The readings also tied into the students’ curriculum: They’re studying the Civil War, which gave rise to Memorial Day as we now know it.
“The first Memorial Day was called Decoration Day,” student Connor Makin said. “At first, only Civil War soldiers that died were honored, but eventually all dead soldiers were honored. On Memorial Day, there is a moment of silence at 3 p.m. for all soldiers that have died.”
Middle school social studies teacher and team leader Jason Simmons said the school’s tradition of visiting River Bend goes back many years.
“For a lot of kids, next Monday is a day off from school, the unofficial start of summer,” he said. “My goal is that after today, that they take a minute or a few minutes to just remember why they’re there. This is more than a day off from school. It’s to really take in why we’re a country, why we’re here.”
Students also took photos of their work, which will also be displayed during an end-of-year multimedia slideshow.