Veterans Day

One of five murals by artist Richard DeRosset in the Veterans Museum at San Diego’s Balboa Park. The museum holds an impressive collection of military artifacts and paintings and hosts period dances and other educational events.

November 11, 1918 marked the signing of the Armistice ending the First World War. At the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the guns fell silent. Ten million men in uniform had died, along with countless millions of civilians. The exhausted Allied nations of Europe were relieved to be free of the bloodshed and dedicated November 11th thenceforward as Armistice Day.

France, Belgium, and Serbia still observe November 11 as Armistice Day; in the British Commonwealth of Nations it is Remembrance Day. Poland celebrates its independence from the former Russian and Hapsburg Empires. Last year was the centennial of the 1918 Armistice and included many moving commemorative events. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, who led the United States into the war as a late participant, delivered a stirring address on the first anniversary of the Armistice, and Congress adopted November 11 as a national holiday in 1926.

Armistice Day was renamed Veterans Day in 1954 to honor all the men and women who have served the nation in uniform. Those of you still in school know it as a welcome day off after weeks of intensive academic effort. The First Quarter is over and the end of the First Semester is now in sight. The full week of Thanksgiving Break is right around the corner. It is time to rest and begin to focus on your final assignments and how best to finish the term successfully.

Think of the veterans you know on this day. Our rights and privileges have been protected by their service and sacrifice. Do what you can to support them. Learn about veterans’ issues and elect public officials who will protect their federal benefits. The way we treat our veterans says something about our national character and values. These are women and men who are willing to put their lives on the line for their country. They deserve our thanks and respect.

Hand painted miniature of my Union Army ancestor with his regiment’s XVI Corps badge. Copyright (c) 2003 Torin Finney.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for tutoring, please visit my website at

Guest Speakers

Demonstrating sketching techniques used by the Civil War era “Bohemian Brigade” for middle school students at a history fair in Los Angeles in 2005. Photo Copyright (c) Torin Finney.

Teaching is a team effort. Many schools have adopted a team teaching or block schedule model to replace the paradigm of solitary single subject teachers presenting separate material over the course of six consecutive periods. For those of you still working in this traditional environment, a time tested way to supplement your curriculum and reinforce state content standards is to bring in guest speakers. Experts in various fields can help your overall presentation and enrich the learning experience of your students.

The social sciences in particular offer endless possibilities for guest presentations. During my twenty years in the classroom I brought in many guest speakers and served as one myself. One of my students had a great uncle who served in World War II. His father brought in several artifacts, including a German headquarters flag captured in Italy in 1945. One of the Little Rock Nine visited the community college adjacent to our campus. Other guest speakers shared stories of travel to historical sites. In economics class, I brought in small business owners and entrepreneurs.

Over the course of my fifteen years in living history programs, I often served as a guest speaker at schools and home school programs, civic organizations, and community events. This was particularly true during the decade in which I portrayed an artist correspondent for Harper’s Weekly. I wore historical costuming and brought in artifacts for the audience to see and showed samples from my sketch portfolio. I presented for several years in the outdoor classroom program of the Fresno Historical Society at their annual Civil War Revisited event in Kearney Park.

My partner Jill and I gave many presentations to local Civil War round table groups and school history fairs. We brought extra costuming in which to dress volunteers from the audience in order to illustrate the ensembles of war correspondents of the period. We traveled throughout southern California and Nevada for many years and posted educational material online. We attended the premiere of historical films in period costume and set up tables with educational materials to share with moviegoers.

Jill was cast in several television programs and films because of her authentic materials and her background in directing numerous theatrical productions in Orange County, California. Both of us portrayed unusual characters of the American Civil War period (1861-1865). She was a Union Army vivandiere for many years and also took the field with me as a news reporter. In 2005 she created a website for my correspondent impression which included a list of guest venues in which we participated as a team.

Jill and I served as guest speakers together at several educational events throughout southern California and Nevada from 2005 to 2010. Here she is demonstrating period letter writing as a Union Army vivandiere at a Los Angeles middle school. Photo Copyright (c) 2005 Torin Finney.

Check with your district and administrator about guest speaker policies before you bring them in. When the guests arrive, introduce them to your students and explain the learning objectives for that period. Require the students to be more than passive listeners. Have them take notes or participate in a question and answer session. Structure the content of the guest speaker around a debate or Socratic seminar. Assign an essay response to what is presented. Leave some time in class for the students to divide into small groups and analyze what they have heard. Challenge them to make thematic connections and dig for deeper meaning.

Many prominent authorities in business, athletics, education, and the arts are more than willing to come to your class to share their expertise with your students. This can even include celebrities. Use your connections. Get creative in putting together your instructional units. Attend presentations by prominent speakers yourself. Most importantly, draw on the support of others to strengthen the content and structure of your class. Team effort produces better and more enduring results.

Jill and I attending a presentation by noted Civil War author and battlefield guide Ed Bearss at the Glendale Public Library in 2007. Photo Copyright (c) Torin Finney.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for mentoring, please visit my website at

Confronting Prejudice

The word prejudice is derived from the idea of “pre-judging” something or someone before gathering sufficient information to make a measured opinion or decision. Prejudice based on race, color, gender, orientation, class, appearance, religion, national origin, accent, or any other characteristic incidental to human identity has plagued human society from its beginnings. I regularly told my students that a sound understanding of American history has to be grounded in a grasp of the fundamental issues of race and space. Confronting the reality of prejudice is a core element of our national story.

In 1968 my father accepted a faculty position at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina. I was finishing the first grade in Columbus, Ohio at the time while he completed his doctoral degree in communications at Ohio State. I did not care for the harsh winters there and looked forward to a milder climate. We bought a new home in a comfortable neighborhood in suburban Raleigh and made our preparations for the move south. All went relatively smoothly and I was excited to start my second grade year in a new school with new friends.

We made the move and settled into our new home as the leaves of summer turned to fall. I enjoyed meeting the neighbor children and playing in the woods behind our house. On my first day of school, I stepped out onto the front driveway to get into our family car and immediately noticed an expression of consternation come over my father’s face as he looked at our front yard. There in the lawn was a dark, scorched patch of grass in the distinct shape of a cross.

I was about to celebrate my seventh birthday, and at that tender age I had no idea what the cross meant. My father explained to me that it was an expression of hate directed at him for being a white man employed at a black school. Shaw was among the historic black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and my father had been hired to help set up their academic media program and campus radio station. Our new neighbors were all white, and apparently some of the local kids had taken it upon themselves to teach the “damn Yankees” on their block a lesson.

The culprits were soon found out and their parents apologized, but the damage had been done. By the end of the school year we had moved to a different neighborhood, where I could associate freely with my best friend, the son of Shaw’s African American president. Racial tensions were high in Raleigh at the time. Civil rights champions Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy had been murdered only months earlier. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 ordered the dismantling of racial discrimination, but the hateful legacy of Jim Crow lingered in intransigent attitudes and de facto segregation. Angry new movements like the Black Panthers were making their voices heard.

When I moved to California to finish high school in the late 1970s, I was surprised to witness similar prejudice directed at other minorities such as Latinos and Asian Americans. There was hostility toward undocumented immigrants and the use of the Spanish language in school and at the polls. Harvey Milk was assassinated during my senior year and conservative groups were publicly condemning homosexuality, affirmative action programs, and anyone who did not espouse their particular religious beliefs. Women were still largely subordinate to men in public life.

When I got to college I enrolled in seminars where issues of prejudice and discrimination were discussed in detail. I learned about the World War II internment of Japanese Americans and took classes in Chicano history and Native American religion and philosophy. Years later in seminary I participated in an anti-racism workshop in which racial prejudice was characterized as a disease. Like chemical dependency, it could be treated with counseling, education, and group therapy, but all of these methods required honesty and courage.

When I became a teacher in the late 1990s, I determined to adopt this approach to the study of history, government, and economics. My nine curriculum units in both United States and world history were structured to include cultural diversity and an unvarnished look at racism, sexism (including heterosexism), anti-immigrant movements, and religious intolerance. When we talked about firms and labor in economics, we looked at discrimination in hiring and workplace harassment. The use of gerrymandering to limit the power of the minority vote was part of our class discussions in government class.

I did encounter some resistance over the years. One parent objected to my teaching her daughter about Islam and other non-Christian faiths, despite state content standards that allowed for such instruction in 7th grade world history. Another felt I spent too much time on civil rights movements in 11th grade U.S. history. Others saw my instruction as too “politically correct” or somehow slanted against conservative views. I did my best to field such comments with as much patience and understanding as I could muster. But in the end, I had to stick by my convictions and the state content standards.

Political disagreement and conflicting views of history will always be a part of public discourse, including in school. As a social science teacher, your task is to present the material in a comprehensive manner and allow students to engage that material in as many different ways as possible. But neither should the social disease of racism and other forms of prejudice be sugarcoated. Discrimination remains a dysfunctional reality in the midst of our democratic society and market economy. Confronting denial is the first step in achieving recovery and justice for all.

Our classrooms include students of all imaginable cultural backgrounds who come from homes where many different languages are spoken. They profess a variety of gender identities and express themselves in a myriad of learning styles and artistic representations. Anything teachers can do to encourage tolerance and dialogue will help in the ongoing process of academic and personal development. Shame, ridicule, superiority, humiliation, and exclusion are hurtful behaviors which must be kept out of your class in whatever way works best for you.

Prejudice has no place in American ideals and does not belong in our schools and other public institutions. Our Constitution was founded on the principle of equal opportunity, and its various amendments have been added to expand the range of that opportunity throughout American history. The way we structure our social science curriculum must reflect this principle. These issues can be explored effectively in writing assignments, lecture and discussion, Socratic seminars, and the use of guest speakers from the community.

Your students depend on you for a balanced view of the past and present. Teach them to listen and keep an open mind. Equipped with these skills, they can begin to set goals for themselves to achieve a promising future.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for mentoring, please visit my website at

November is Native American Heritage Month

One of the great and tragic ironies of American history is that the original inhabitants of what became the United States were among the last groups to be granted the full rights of citizenship. President Calvin Coolidge signed the Indian Citizenship Act in 1924, more than four centuries after Europeans first arrived in the western hemisphere and nearly 150 years after the birth of the United States. Article I of the United States Constitution empowered the new federal Congress to “regulate commerce” with native peoples, but nowhere were those people identified as citizens of the new nation.

What followed was a pattern of military conquest and systematic displacement of indigenous communities which some contemporary historians have described as genocidal. As the United States expanded westward across the Appalachians and the Great Plains and into the Rocky Mountains and the Far West, the influx of new settlers encroached upon historic tribal lands. Homesteading, the discovery of gold and silver, buffalo hunting, and the construction of the transcontinental railroad all contributed to the decimation of native communities. Smallpox, influenza, cholera, and typhus took their toll. Those tribes who did not move out of the way willingly were forced to do so by the army.

Racist stereotypes labeled Native Americans as “savage” and “uncivilized” and led to their children being taken from them and placed in segregated “Indian Industrial Schools.” Children who continued to speak their indigenous languages were severely punished. Many Christian missionaries sought to suppress native religious beliefs and practices. The long history of wars and broken treaties ended with the imposition of a network of federal reservations where the remaining tribes were confined to remote, desolate locations.

Today there are 326 reservations managed by the U.S. Department of the Interior in which many of the 562 recognized American Indian nations reside. Four Native Americans currently serve in the United States Congress, including Sharice Davids of Kansas and Deb Haaland of New Mexico, the first women of indigenous tribal ancestry to represent their respective states.

Yet native communities still struggle for survival. While sovereign Indian nations enjoy a degree of self-government and their members hold dual citizenship, many historic tribal identities and languages have disappeared, and the reservations continue to suffer from high rates of poverty, addiction, crime, unemployment, clinical depression, suicide, and despair.

Concern over these crises and other long-standing grievances led tribal leaders to add their voices to the growing struggle for civil rights. Like other minorities, Native Americans fought bravely in World War II and returned home with expectations of increased economic opportunity, political representation, and equal treatment under the law.

The American Indian Movement (AIM) was formed in Minneapolis in 1968 to address issues of poverty and police brutality in urban native communities. The movement later expanded to include campaigns to preserve indigenous languages, land and water rights, cultural practices, and religious beliefs, as well as efforts to end the use of stereotyped images as athletic mascots.

An inter-tribal takeover of Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay from November 1969 to June 1971 attracted national media coverage, as did the occupation of the 1890 battlefield at Wounded Knee, South Dakota in 1973. AIM activist Leonard Peltier was imprisoned for the shooting of two FBI agents at Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in 1975 and became a cause celebre for native groups convinced of his innocence.

More than 2,000 native people and their allies participated in the “Longest Walk” from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. in 1978 to protest the infringement of native land and water rights and the sanctity of historic burial grounds. Recent high-profile protests over a proposed oil pipeline through Lakota communities in South Dakota and a new observatory on Hawai’i’s Mauna Kea are painful reminders that those rights remain under threat.

In response to years of lobbying by tribal advocates, President George H. W. Bush declared November to be Native American Indian Heritage Month on August 3, 1990. Native objections to mainstream holiday portrayals of the first “Thanksgiving” and the celebration of Columbus’s “discovery of America” led many chiefs and educators to push for a more balanced view of history and cultural traditions. Some communities chose to change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day, beginning with the state of South Dakota in 1990 and continuing with the California cities of Berkeley in 1992 and Santa Cruz in 1994.

Native American cultures yield a rich array of curriculum materials for your students. From the turquoise and silver jewelry of the Navajo and Pueblo to the sacred dances of the Kiowa and the Cheyenne, a focus on the visual and performing arts can provide lively ways of introducing the class to indigenous traditions. The Cherokee alphabet created by Chief Sequoyah (1770-1843) can be a good starting point for written activities. So can the traumatic experience of the five southeastern “Civilized Nations” on the Trail of Tears (1838-1839). Native American religious beliefs form another body of interesting ideas for lesson development.

Authors Dee Brown (1908-2002) and Vine Deloria, Jr. (1933-2005) wrote classic nonfiction works on Native American history and culture. Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee has never gone out of print since it was first published in 1970 and has been translated into 17 languages worldwide. An award-winning film adaptation appeared on HBO in 2007. Deloria’s Custer Died For Your Sins (1969) and God is Red (1972) became part of the curriculum of burgeoning Native American Studies programs on college campuses across the country.

Popular fashion and media began to focus on a revival of American Indian music, language, and dance in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The growing environmental movement also took an interest in indigenous beliefs in the wake of the first Earth Day celebrations. Tribal groups began making their voices heard and asserting their right to occupy their historic lands and celebrate their cultures without restriction. Inter-tribal powwows have multiplied in the years since then and many are now open to the public. I attended a large one in Wichita, Kansas in 1992 hosted by the Mid-America All-Indian Center during my fifteen months on the Great Plains.

Biographies of prominent figures such as war chiefs Sitting Bull (1831-1890) and Geronimo (1829-1909), World War II hero Ira Hayes (1923-1955) and the Navajo “Code Talkers,” AIM leaders Dennis Banks (1937-2017) and Russell Means (1939-2012), Cherokee Chief Wilma Mankiller (1945-2010), and folk singer Buffy Sainte-Marie can form the basis of interesting and rewarding student projects. So can regional cultural profiles and the more recent cooperation between indigenous peoples from around the world on important environmental and political issues.

Other worthwhile lesson plans may include a critical examination of the portrayal of Native Americans in popular media, from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show to television programs and movies. Controversy over the use of names like “Indians,” “Redskins,” “Braves,” and “Warriors” as sports mascots continues to the present day. A chronological or thematic study of the so-called “Indian Wars” can tie in map activities as well as essays and visual display projects. From the colonial struggles of the 18th century to the Civil War and western campaigns of the 19th and the World Wars of the 20th, Native Americans have participated in every important chapter in American military history.

The iconic drawings of George Catlin (1796-1872) and photographs of Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952) as well as the poetry and essays of Pulitzer Prize winner N. Scott Momaday are great sources for projects and discussion in class. So is the music of Navajo flutist R. Carlos Nakai, who has performed all over the world and has many of his recordings preserved in the Library of Congress. The recent documentary film Rumble highlighted the contribution of Native American musicians to the history of rock and other forms of contemporary popular music.

Native Americans number around three million people today and live in every state of the Union. An emphasis on the rich diversity of their cultural traditions must be a part of any lesson plan design. Historic indigenous concerns over stewardship of the earth and its natural resources are especially timely in light of current debates over climate change and other environmental crises. These issues have moved beyond national borders to include the global community. Your students are a vital part of that community. Do what you can to get them involved. Native American studies is a helpful place to start.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for mentoring, please visit my website at


Something drew you into teaching. Perhaps it was the desire to work with young people, or maybe one or both of your parents were teachers and you wanted to continue the family tradition. You might have been inspired by one or more of your own teachers to follow in their footsteps. Some people are also attracted to the ten month schedule with its regular holiday breaks. Whatever your reasons were, you felt called to this job (see my blog entry on “Teaching as Vocation”). Remembering the origins of your career as an educator is an important part of maintaining and nurturing that path.

In my case, it all started with a trip to Mexico in December of 1981. I was 20 years old. One of my college housemates and I were looking for a new adventure during winter break of our junior year at UC Santa Cruz. We had already been backpacking in Yosemite and Mount San Jacinto and I had just returned from a hitchhiking journey to Mount Shasta. Someone told me the Mexican peso was inexpensive and that traveling south of the border was relatively easy. All we would need is a birth certificate, bottled water, a backpack filled with casual clothing and some personal effects, a few hundred dollars in travelers checks, and a rudimentary understanding of Spanish.

This last part I had. In fact, my two years of high school Spanish had been bolstered by four quarters at the university level. Peruvian, Andalusian, and Mexican American professors immersed me in a Spanish-only language environment that produced enough fluency to converse comfortably in class and write short stories as well as a term paper on the murals of Mexican artist Diego Rivera (1886-1957). I had spent the previous July and August working with Latin American students in the summer language institute on campus. I felt confident that my linguistic skills were enough to get us through any situation we might encounter.

Accordingly, we packed our things and took off south on Highway 101 in my housemate’s old Volkswagen bug as soon as our last fall finals were finished. When we reached Los Angeles we merged onto Interstate 5 to take us the rest of the way to the border. We left the car in Chula Vista at the home of another housemate’s parents and made our way across the international border at San Ysidro, boarding a bus for La Paz at the southern end of Baja California. My first taste of Mexico was stimulating and exciting. The sun was warm, the skies were clear, the food was good, and everyone we met seemed friendly.

The bus ride down the Baja Peninsula, however, posed new challenges. After dropping off and taking on a succession of passengers, including several chickens and dogs, we reached the settlement of El Rosario, where I played soccer with some local kids while we waited for the next bus to arrive at the town’s tienda or general store. Arrival time was supposed to be around 2 pm (every query I directed at the tienda proprietor was answered by the reply “A las dos”), but the bus did not show up until after 4. Shortly after boarding, some Mexican police asked to see our birth certificates. My Spanish fluency seemed to provide satisfactory answers to their questions, and we were soon on our way again.

Hours of driving through vast deserts and legions of tall cacti at last ended with our arrival in the coastal city of La Paz. From here we took another bus to the resort town of Cabo San Lucas, at that time a small beach hamlet with a few restaurants and a discotheque. We camped on the beach with the other gringos, who included tourists from France, Germany, Sweden, Australia, the Netherlands, and a Canadian traveling with his Barbadian girlfriend. I interacted with the locals as much as I could, asking about snorkeling spots and the best places to eat.

One of these places nearly proved my undoing. I had been careful about drinking only bottled water during the entire trip, but after eating a plate of huevos rancheros in which the iceberg lettuce had been washed with local tap water, I became violently ill. The devastating effects of amoebic dysentery abated only after staggering to the local pharmacy to purchase the proper medication. This all happened on our last day in Cabo as we were about to embark on the ferry across the Gulf of California for Puerto Vallarta. I did what I could to keep myself together and showed up on time to board the ship.

More trouble followed on the crossing. Some local kids rifled through the bags of the tourists after a night of revelry, and my backpack was among those opened, despite the fact that I had gone to sleep early rather than stay up with the others. I lost my camera, some plastic shampoo containers, and my remaining $190 in travelers checks. With the assistance of some Mexican marines on board, I was able to find my backpack and recover my remaining belongings. When we arrived in port, I went immediately to the local Thomas Cook offices and was reissued $90 of my money. The thieves had managed to cash the rest within an hour of disembarking.

My knowledge of Spanish helped me navigate all these challenges, and by the time we left Puerto Vallarta, I was enjoying myself and noticed a greater fluency in my conversational skills. I was able to secure us excellent hotel deals and find the best restaurants in town (carefully avoiding local fresh produce). The journey back to the United States was filled with exciting and memorable experiences, including a train ride in a first class Pullman car from Mazatlan to Mexicali and an intense philosophical discourse in the Tepic bus terminal with a local woman who bore a remarkably uncanny resemblance in both her thinking and appearance to Mexican artist Frida Kahlo (1907-1954).

Back in Santa Cruz, I reflected on the impact of those two weeks in Mexico. I felt I had undergone some kind of spiritual transformation. My first hand encounters with the language, the art, the culture, the poverty, the customs, and especially the people there had somehow changed me. The illusion of the “ivory tower” had been shattered. I found myself wanting to learn more about Latin America and was even drawn to the religious roots of my European ancestors. I enrolled in Confirmation classes and became involved in worship and educational activities at my local parish, including services in Spanish.

Earlier plans to pursue a career in academia were gradually replaced by a new interest in pastoral ministry, perhaps as a missionary in Latin America. I went on to complete a Master’s degree in my college major of American Studies, but chose a religious conscientious objector as my thesis topic (see my blog on “Discovering New Stories”). Nine weeks working as a bilingual counselor at a summer camp for disadvantaged children strengthened my resolve to devote my life to a Spanish-speaking mission. By the time the final draft of the thesis was written, I had applied and been accepted to one of the nine seminaries at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California.

Three years after returning from Mexico, I spent nine weeks working as a bilingual counselor in a summer camp for disadvantaged youth in Sonoma County, California. My experiences there inspired me to pursue a career in education, first in the church and later in public schools. Photo Copyright (c) 1984 Torin Finney.

During my time as a seminarian, I led an inner-city youth group in Berkeley and spent an internship year in Hawai’i. As it turned out, I did not have too many opportunities to use my Spanish in these settings. In the Bay Area I was working with mostly African American kids and in the islands all my parishioners were native English speakers of European, Asian, or Polynesian heritage. I did take the Berkeley youth group over the border to help build new housing for homeless families in the destitute Mexican colonias (shantytowns), and I preached sermons and led classes on the war in Central America when I was in Honolulu. But my Spanish went largely unspoken over the course of those six years.

Then a new ray of hope appeared. When I returned to the mainland to complete my senior year at the seminary, the church authorities initially assigned me to their Caribbean Synod. Spanish-speaking ministerial candidates were rare in my denomination and the bishop in San Juan, Puerto Rico had an opening. He called me on the telephone and floated the possibility of taking me there for my first independent assignment. I expressed my enthusiasm for the idea and began brushing up on my Spanish. I listened regularly to Spanish radio and began seeking out pastors who had served in Spanish-speaking parishes.

A few weeks later, I was extremely disappointed when the idea of Puerto Rico was replaced at the last minute by an assignment to central Kansas. The bishop in Kansas City had read my Ben Salmon book and thought I would be a good fit for one of his two-point congregations. I dutifully accepted the post and went through graduation and ordination, but my heart was not in it. Over the course of my fifteen months on the prairie, I realized that my interest in working with Spanish-speaking children was not going to be satisfied in the context of parish work. In the fall of 1992 I resigned my position and returned to California in search of a new direction.

I soon went to work for Sprint as a bilingual operator in the California Relay Service, a state telephone service for the hearing impaired. For four years, I relayed calls between voice callers and TTY (text telephone devices for the deaf) users in both English and Spanish and honed my language skills. By 1998 I began to look at teaching as a possible path for those skills. I found myself reading history and other subjects in the social sciences in my spare time and missed the intellectual stimulation of an academic environment. With a seminary degree and nearly a decade of experience in religious education, I was able to get a job teaching theology and U.S. history at a private high school in Kern County.

While I enjoyed the experience of learning the teaching trade, most of the students at that first school came from well-to-do families who did not speak Spanish. During my two years there I obtained my state teaching credential and began interviewing for positions in the local public school districts. The principal from the middle school where I completed my student teaching in the summer of 2000 learned that I was bilingual and offered me a 6th grade social studies classroom there. He told me that four out of five of his 700 students came from Spanish-speaking households. I leapt at the opportunity and heartily accepted the job.

That first year was a hard one, filled with struggle and anguish as I learned how to manage a class of 35 rambunctious 11-year-olds. By the end of the second semester, I was assigned a mentor who helped me begin to develop my own leadership style. My Spanish definitely came in handy, particularly in parent conferences and when I walked the neighborhood to meet families and recruit their support for my burgeoning after-school drama program. Ironically, this role seemed much closer to my original conception of the ministry than most of what I had done during my years in church work. I felt I had finally found my calling.

Over the course of my eighteen years in public schools, I made good use of my Spanish language skills with both students and their families. I steadily increased my academic vocabulary and incorporated Spanish language terms into my lectures and other activities in history and economics. By the time I retired in July 2018, I calculated that I had taught more than five thousand students of all ages in five different schools. The great majority of that number came from Spanish-speaking families. To many them I became more than just another teacher. I was Maestro, a concept that goes beyond mere instruction in state-mandated curriculum.

Find the inspiration in your own story. You were called to teach for a reason. It is easy to forget this in times of stress and exhaustion when the demanding duties of teaching take their toll. Remember what attracted you to the profession in the first place. Your calling is unique to your gifts and personality. Believe in that calling as your pursue your career. That faith in yourself will sustain you in times of trial. Get the support you need and take care of your health. Utilize your breaks to rejuvenate and renew your motivation. For every step you take in following your own path, the way will be opened more for you.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for mentoring, please visit my website at

Reading on the Go

Some of the titles I read during my ten years commuting by train in Orange County, California, 2007-2017. Photo Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney.

Effective teaching depends in large part on continual learning. The demanding duties of being a teacher sometimes make it difficult to find time to be a student. Yet the mind of the educator must always be honed by exposure to new material and methodology. I often told my students that reading is the key to succeeding. Over the course of my twenty years in the classroom, I realized that it was important to take my own advice. Consequently, I determined to augment my social science curriculum through reading in subjects that had hitherto escaped my attention.

This proved easier said than done. For the first nine years of my teaching career, I commuted back and forth to school by automobile, as did most of my colleagues. My time on campus was dominated by lesson planning and classroom management and my time at home by grading, particularly when I was teaching middle school by day and community college classes in the evening. On weekends I participated in living history programs. On winter and summer breaks I traveled or caught up on rest and errands. There was little time for reading. I owned an extensive library in my chosen subjects but was unable to make much use of it. I was simply too busy.

I had not always been too busy to read. As a college and graduate student in the 1980s I read hundreds of pages a week. I did not own a car in those days and took public transportation back and forth to school. I rode the MBTA while earning my M.A. at UMass/Boston and the BART when I was studying at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. In Washington, D.C. I took the Metro and in San Francisco I took the Muni. Whenever I boarded a bus, shuttle, train, or plane, I took a book with me. Reading occupied much of my free time. I even read during breaks when I began working full-time in the early 1990s. But when I began my teaching career at the end of that decade, my time for reading disappeared.

The irony of this dilemma did not escape me, and I wanted to do something about it. By my tenth year I was teaching high school in a tenured position and weary of commuting by car. The opportunity then arose to travel back and forth to school by train and I decided to take advantage of it. Gas prices were high at the time and the monthly train pass was cost effective. I had to leave home a half hour earlier and returned a half hour later, but I would have time during the thirty minutes in the train car to rest, catch up on the news, or read. My school was only a few blocks walk from the train station and I could use the exercise.

Here is the shoulder bag I carried with me on the train from 2007 to 2017. Some books would fit in one of the three interior pocket sleeves. There were also smaller pockets for office supplies and a mesh bag for my water bottle.

That walk exposed me to the elements, and I learned by trial and error how to adapt my wardrobe. I carried my papers in a shoulder bag and wore a wool hat in winter and a broad-brimmed straw one in summer. I brought along a portable umbrella, sunscreen, a water bottle, and proper footwear. I kept my work shoes in my classroom and changed into them when I arrived on campus. I also had to be mindful of heavy automobile traffic when I waited at lights to enter crosswalks. Traveling to school this way had its challenges, but I enjoyed the adventure of it and the opportunity to catch up on reading.

I began with the books I already owned and then added what I needed to my home and classroom libraries by ordering new material online or making purchases at local bookstores. Any expense that related to my career as an educator could potentially be counted as a tax deduction, so I kept meticulous records of receipts for my accountant. I focused on authors whose work highlighted the subjects I was teaching. United States and world history formed the bulk of my material, but I also explored studies in geography, religion, political science, current events, and economics.

Some of my favorite authors included British geographer Simon Winchester, American journalist Rick Perlstein, and historians Candice Millard, David McCullough, H. W. Brands, and Donald L. Miller. I read biographies, memoirs, dispatches, regimental histories, classic novels, anthologies, textbooks, travel guides, illustrated atlases, collections of speeches, and autobiographies. I obtained a library card and checked out whatever my local branch had to offer. Some books were heavier than others, and I had to be careful not to take on too much weight for my walk from the train station to school and back. On rainy days I had to carry my books in a plastic bag in one hand and my umbrella in the other.

I purchased this portable umbrella from a shop near Trinity College in Dublin during my Ireland trip in April of 2000 and carried it with me on rainy days over the ten years I commuted to school by train in Orange County, California. Photo Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney.

My commuter train had seating areas with tables and electrical outlets, and I sat in these seats as often as I could. This allowed me to charge my smartphone and use it to look up information. I could spread out paperwork on the table and take notes on what I was reading or catch up on grading tests, homework, classwork, and essays. I often wore earbuds and listened to music and other audio files. The train was punctual most of the time, but the inevitable delays due to rail traffic, accidents, or mechanical trouble provided extra time in which I could work. I also read while waiting on the platform for trains to arrive. My latest book became my constant companion during my daily commute.

This was a welcome respite from the thousands of miles and many hours I had to drive during my first nine years as a teacher. For the next ten years, I took the train almost every day, unless I had to remain at school after the last train because of extra-curricular duties. My car sat safely in the parking garage at my home station and I enjoyed walking through the restored historic downtown district in which my school was located. My monthly pass allowed me to ride the local commuter rail service as well as the Amtrak trains that used the same routes. I made new friends and acquaintances among my fellow commuters, some of whom shared my reading interests.

My colleagues in the Digital Arts and Humanities Program helped me plan an annual field trip into downtown Los Angeles to visit the museums there, and we decided to ride the train as a group. I was able to secure a school rate for the three teachers and thirty or so students we took every year. Many of the kids had never traveled by train before and enjoyed the experience immensely. I even inspired some of my other colleagues to begin commuting by rail themselves. My social science colleagues in particular were intrigued with my return to regular reading and began finding time in their own schedules for new books.

Technology changed the nature of reading as an activity over the course of my decade on the rails. The decline of local bookstores and newspapers as part of the “retail apocalypse” of the new millennium made it more challenging to obtain new reading material, at least in traditional form. Amazon became an excellent resource for rare books and educational videos I could use in class. I incorporated new material I was reading into my slideshows and lectures and came up with new lesson plans for my students. The rise of smartphones and online classrooms allowed for new ways of learning. I tried to make connections between these innovative digital platforms and traditional books and magazines.

When I retired from full-time teaching last year, I gave away much of my collection of books to the local public library. Many of them were volumes I enjoyed reading during my years on the train. I was happy to share with others the resources I had used to augment my own knowledge and understanding and that of my students. Websites, podcasts, sound bytes, downloads, blogs, and online forums have their place, but none can substitute for the experience of holding a book in one’s hands and turning its pages to follow an engaging story. I tried to teach that to my students and continue to support the work of public libraries through my donations and patronage.

Read what you can, when you can. If you commute to school using public transportation, bring a book along with your other personal effects. There is always something new to learn, especially in the study of history and the other social sciences. If you still drive or walk to work, find time elsewhere in your schedule to sit down with a good book. Follow book reviews online. Experiment with new authors. Reread old classics. Check out books from your local public library. Reading is indeed the key to succeeding, in personal as well as professional development. In our busy, distracted, digital world, taking quiet time for learning and reflection can make a positive difference.

Sign on the train platform at the Irvine Transportation Center in Orange County, California. I commuted by rail between Irvine and Fullerton for ten years and led an annual field trip by train from Fullerton to Los Angeles Union Station. Photo Copyright (c) 2017 Torin Finney.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for mentoring, please visit my website at

October is German American Heritage Month and Italian American Heritage and Culture Month

German Americans are the single largest ethnic group in the United States, with numbers estimated at more than 50 million people, one sixth of the general population. President Ronald Reagan proclaimed October 6, 1983 as German American Day to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the arrival of thirteen Rhenish families in colonial Philadelphia. Four years later, Congress established the day as an official annual observance to recognize the contributions of German Americans to the nation’s history and culture.

When East and West Germany reunited on October 3, 1990 after nearly five decades of Cold War division, German Unity Day was included in American celebrations as well. The Bavarian tradition of Oktoberfest spread to other German immigrant communities and then made the leap to American popular culture. Many local associations and municipalities, particularly in the “German Belt” of Pennsylvania and the Upper Midwest, organized parades, festivals, concerts, and other special events to highlight historic German American communities.

When the United States proclaimed independence from Great Britain in 1776, there were more than 300 separate German-speaking states and free cities in central Europe. Immigrants from all of them helped to develop the new nation. German doctor Johannes Fleischer (1582-1608) was among the first settlers in the Jamestown colony in Virginia, and Lutheran pastor Peter Muhlenberg (1746-1807) was a general in the Continental Army and later a United States congressman. More than seven million Germans came to America in the century between 1820 and 1920. They augmented the already substantial German populations of New York and Pennsylvania and helped to settle new states from Ohio to Oregon.

Among them was my great-great-grandfather, Heinrich (Henry) Meiring, born in Hannover in 1849. He fought in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871 but then fled the anti-Catholic purges of Otto von Bismarck’s Kulturkampf. First arriving in Canada, he later made his way to Oregon’s Willamette Valley, where he opened a flour mill near the town of Sheridan. His daughter Anna married one of his mill workers, George Finney (1868-1936), the son of Irish immigrants. In 1900 Anna Meiring Finney gave birth to my paternal grandfather, who later married the daughter of another German immigrant from Frankfurt.

The 300 German states had consolidated into 39 by 1820, but internal political, religious, and economic unrest drove many to seek a better life across the Atlantic. Many brought skilled trades, education, and distinct cultural traditions with them. The Christmas tree, kindergarten programs, glee clubs, lager beer, gymnasiums, and many other aspects of American daily life all originated with these German-speaking newcomers. German churches and German language newspapers proliferated in the young republic. St. Louis, Milwaukee, Chicago, and the farm communities of the Great Lakes region soon had large German populations.

Many German Americans opposed slavery in the years leading up to the Civil War, and 200,000 served in the Union Army, including my maternal great-great-grandfather. New York and Ohio each provided ten divisions. They fought in every major campaign of the war. Some German settlements in the Confederate states endured persecution for their Unionist views. German Americans were derided as “Dutchmen” by Southern sympathizers in Missouri and attacked by Confederate guerrilla bands. After the war, most German American newspapers and civic groups sided with the Republican Party’s Reconstruction platform, particularly its support of full civil rights for African American freedmen.

German immigrants included Roman Catholics, Jews, and a number of Protestant groups, including Lutherans, Moravians, Pietists, and Mennonites. Targeted during the First World War, they sought to prove their loyalty in the Second. General (and later President) Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969) and Admiral Chester W. Nimitz (1885-1966) both came from German ancestry and helped lead America to victory in World War II. German Americans contributed to the tremendous growth of the postwar economy and shaped the future of American politics, business, education, music, and art.

October is also Italian American Heritage and Culture Month, declared by Congress in 1989 during the presidency of George H. W. Bush (1924-2018). Italian Americans constitute 6% of the U.S. population and are the fourth largest group of European heritage after those with German, Irish, and English roots. Local celebrations of Columbus Day on October 12 eventually developed into an entire month of special events and festivals. More than five million Italian immigrants became Americans in the 19th and 20th centuries, with the vast majority arriving in the decades between 1880 and 1920.

Like Germany, Italy became a single unified nation in 1871, ending centuries of feudalism and regional conflict. Unification led to improved living conditions, but local infrastructure could not support a growing and more mobile population of largely unskilled labor. Poverty and oppression throughout the country, particularly in the former Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, drove many to emigrate. Millions fled the country over the next several decades. Many of them followed friends and relatives to America. In 1892 the U.S. government opened the immigration station at Ellis Island in New York Harbor. Many Italians arrived here until the First World War restricted new arrivals from Europe.

Italians formed tight-knit communities in the cities of the Northeast and Midwest and became involved in local business and politics. They built on the contributions of earlier generations of newcomers. The Italian American 39th New York Infantry or “Garibaldi Guard” was one of the first regiments to answer President Lincoln’s call to preserve the Union in 1861. Others went West and developed agriculture and other industries. Most were Roman Catholic and contributed to the growth of parishes, schools, hospitals, universities, and social service organizations. California native Amadeo Giannini (1870-1949), whose father came from Genoa in 1849 to participate in the Gold Rush, founded the Bank of Italy in San Francisco in 1904. In 1930 Bank of Italy became Bank of America.

As was the case in many immigrant communities, discrimination and hardship were daily reminders that success in their adopted land would not be easy. The Sacco and Vanzetti trial of 1927 exposed anti-immigrant prejudice and popular hostility to the radical labor movements in which many Italian workers became involved. The bootlegging empire of Al Capone (1899-1947) generated sensational news during the Prohibition years and inaugurated a popular obsession with Italian American organized crime families for decades.

Many Italian Americans pursued careers in public service. Four have been Mayor of New York City, including Fiorello La Guardia (1882-1947), Rudolph Giuliani (who led the city through the aftermath of the 9-11 attacks), and current Mayor Bill de Blasio. Mario Cuomo (1932-2015) was the 52nd Governor of New York. His son Andrew has been the 56th since 2011. In 1984, Democratic Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro (1935-2011) became the first candidate of Italian descent to be nominated for Vice President. World War II Marine John Basilone (1916-1945) won the Congressional Medal of Honor at Guadalcanal and became a national hero. When he was killed at Iwo Jima, the entire country mourned.

The observance of Columbus Day became controversial in the closing decades of the 20th century as the emerging Native American civil rights movement challenged the idea that early European explorers had “discovered” the land and peoples of the western hemisphere. This debate cast a shadow across many local celebrations of the holiday, much to the chagrin of some Italian American communities. President Bush designated November as Native American Indian Heritage Month in 1990 to address these concerns and similar objections to the portrayal of native peoples in Thanksgiving traditions. This allowed October to remain a focus for educational and festive events on Italian culture and heritage.

The impressive list of prominent politicians, business leaders, artists, actors, musicians, athletes, writers, intellectuals, and military heroes of German and Italian heritage can serve as a starting point for developing a host of engaging curriculum activities in your classroom. So can cuisine, language, music, decor, and costuming. From portraits of Ellis Island immigrants to famous paintings and films, the material available to the resourceful and creative teacher is without limit. Have your students design a board game on the immigrant experience. Draw maps showing the settlement and growth of historic ethnic communities. Assign projects and special reports on important figures and events in history.

Whatever you decide to do in class, strive for inclusiveness and inspiration in your lesson plans. Engage the kids in activities that celebrate all the cultural traditions that have shaped the course of modern American history. October is a good time to focus on the contributions of Italian and German immigrants and their descendants. As in other special cultural commemorations throughout the year, teach your students that each of them has something important to offer. Each ethnic heritage has contributed to the strength and richness of the society as a whole. Learning about one another can help us work together to build a better future.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for mentoring, please visit my website at

September 15-October 15 is National Hispanic Heritage Month

Latinos are the nation’s largest minority, with some estimates counting Americans of Spanish or Portuguese heritage as 20-25% of the United States population. President Lyndon Johnson created Hispanic Heritage Week in 1968 from a bill sponsored by Mexican American Democratic Representative Edward Roybal (1916-2005) of Los Angeles. September 15-22 was chosen as the commemorative week because it included the independence days of Mexico, Chile, and several Central American nations. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan expanded the observance to the entire month period between September 15 and October 15.

“Hispanic” is a cultural rather than a racial designation, and pertains to anyone who has Spanish ancestry and/or was raised in a Spanish-speaking household. This, of course, includes people of all conceivable racial backgrounds. Latino/a (or the gender neutral Latinx) broadens this ethnic base to include Portuguese, Brazilian, and other non-Hispanic Latin American heritage. Chicano/a is a term coined during the civil rights struggles of the 1960s to refer specifically to Mexican Americans, many of whom are descended from families already living in the Southwest when those territories were annexed by the United States in 1848.

The incredible diversity within Hispanic/Latino culture provides innumerable learning opportunities for your students, especially in history and other social science classes. There is much to celebrate, from music, art, dance, and cuisine to the annual festivals of Cinco de Mayo (commemorating the May 5, 1862 Battle of Puebla) and Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). Civil rights leaders such as Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta can be the focus of special lesson plans. So can elected federal, state, and local officials of Hispanic heritage; there are 38 members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus as of January 2019.

Landmark court decisions such as Mendez v. Westminster (1947) and Hernandez v. Texas (1954) call attention to historic civil rights struggles within the Hispanic community. I included these and others in my regular Civil Rights Movement unit in U.S. History when I taught grade 11. At the middle school level, I assigned different Latin American countries to student groups and had them construct “travel brochures” highlighting demographic, political, and economic profiles as well as the connection of those nations to cultural communities within the United States.

One of the keys to Hispanic identity is an understanding of the Spanish language. While teaching in Spanish is not a required part of social science instruction (see my blog entry on “Bilingual Education”), understanding proper pronunciation of Spanish words and names can help make some lecture topics more meaningful for your students. Individual cultures are shaped in part by their particular idiomatic expressions, including members of those communities who no longer speak the language. The three largest Hispanic communities in the United States, namely Mexican American, Cuban American, and Puerto Rican, each have their own dialects of Spanish as well as distinctive food, family traditions, and historical narratives.

A sensitivity to these varieties of Hispanic culture and identity is important in constructing lesson plans and dealing with your students and their families. There are Hispanic and Latino families, for example, of exclusively European, African, Asian, or Native American ancestry, as well as many that are a mixture of one or more of the above. Some speak Spanish as their primary language and others do not. Many speak “Spanglish,” a colloquial mixture of English and Spanish that has its own slang and idiomatic cadences. Mexican culture is very different from Salvadoran, Guatemalan, Venezuelan, or Chilean cultures. The Spanish-speaking cultures of the Caribbean have their own unique characteristics.

Historical topics to highlight in National Hispanic Heritage Month can include the United Farm Workers union, the building of the Panama Canal, debates over bilingual ballots and education, legal battles over immigration and desegregation, and the contribution of Hispanic veterans in the nation’s wars. The Chicano Movement that swept across the nation’s schools and university campuses in the 1960s, particularly in southern California, helped to define a generation and call attention to long-neglected political and economic inequities. The struggle for equality in the Latina community can be a fascinating study within the broader modern feminist movement. Latinx LGBT issues are a significant part of civil rights discussions today.

Your goal as a history teacher is to paint the national story with the broadest strokes and in the largest variety of colors as you can muster. In government and economics, focusing on diversity in campaigning and business will help your students better understand the complexities of today’s society. The story of Hispanic America is a microcosm of the American story as a whole. The mixture of native culture and successive waves of immigrants from all across the world is at the heart of the Hispanic story. Celebrate this story in fun ways this month. Your students will appreciate your efforts.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for mentoring, please visit my website at

Pilgrimage to the Auld Sod

Visiting the Rock of Cashel in County Tipperary during my week in Ireland. Photo Copyright (c) 2000 Torin Finney.

I knew I was Irish from an early age. The story was that my surname had been O’Feeney in the old country, then Feeney when English language schools were imposed, and finally Finney once the family reached America. When I delved into genealogical research in the early 1990s, I discovered that some of this was true. The parish records I obtained from Tulsk and Elphin in County Roscommon listed my great-great-great-grandfather as John Feeney in 1840 and one of his sons as James Feeney. By the time James and his son George were listed in La Crosse County, Wisconsin in 1870, the surname was Finney.

More research revealed a sadder story. While tenants, the Finneys (Feeneys) were Catholic “middling farmers” who had enough money of their own to get out of Ireland before a terrible blight ruined the potato crop and led to catastrophic disease and starvation. My other Irish side, the Lynches of County Clare, did not. Records show them arriving in Canada in 1849 on a “coffin ship,” a filthy ex-slaver put to new use carrying hordes of desperate Irish famine victims as ballast. Many of them died of cholera or typhus on the hideous journey, including my great-great-great-grandmother and one of her sons. But the other children survived, including 13-year-old Mary Ann Lynch, who settled with her father and remaining siblings in Chicago and married James Finney in 1856.

This dramatic personal story became the core of a decade-long obsession with Irish history and culture. I devoured every story and song I could find throughout the 1990s. This was a decade in which things Celtic were very popular. Tartan was back in. Irish pubs proliferated. Movies like Titanic, Rob Roy, Michael Collins, and Braveheart drew huge audiences, as did the stage show Riverdance. Irish bands U2, the Corrs, the Pogues, and the Cranberries dominated the charts. French Breton harpist Alan Stivell, already popular in Europe for mixing traditional Celtic music with progressive rock (I first became a fan in Boston in 1984), enjoyed a revival on both sides of the Atlantic with a series of new albums.

Since early 1992, I had been listening weekly to Fiona Ritchie’s The Thistle and Shamrock on my local NPR station and collecting books and CDs. I read Cecil Woodham-Smith’s The Great Hunger (1962) and books on the Ulster Plantations, the Battle of the Boyne, the Penal Laws, the 1798 United Irishmen, the Young Irelanders, the Irish diaspora in North America and Australia, the Land League, the Fenians, the Gaelic Revival, and the Easter Rising of 1916. I learned Irish songs and a little of the Irish language and held boisterous St. Patrick’s Day parties every year. I couldn’t get enough of “the Auld Sod.”

So when the opportunity to actually go there in person presented itself at the end of the decade, I leapt at the chance. By that time I was teaching high school, and a colleague of mine, who was also Irish American and an avid fan of Irish history, helped me organize an educational tour for our spring break in April of 2000. We signed up twenty kids and seven of their parents and grandparents and even took along a friend of ours who was a bagpiper. The itinerary included tours of greater Dublin, the Ring of Kerry, Galway City, Limerick, the Cliffs of Moher, Blarney Castle, Powerscourt Gardens, and the Waterford Crystal factory.

What interested me the most, of course, was the opportunity to see the land of my ancestors and visit notable historical sites. I read up on many of these as we flew over the Atlantic and landed in Shannon Airport on the western coast of Ireland. I was overcome with emotion as I stood on my ancestral ground for the first time after so many years of study and anticipation. Fulfilling a promise we had made to an Irish priest back home, my colleague and I knelt and kissed the ground, much to the amusement of our traveling companions.

We did not linger in Limerick. We boarded a short flight to Dublin and were soon walking the busy streets of the Irish capital. I took in the road signs, the eclectic crowds, the tall buildings, and especially the streets, where driving on the left took some getting used to as both a passenger and a pedestrian. Our tour guides wasted no time. They took us into the very heart of the city, where we walked the stately grounds of Trinity College and marveled at the intricate knotwork of the medieval Book of Kells in the majestic grandeur of the Long Room. I had been studying the Book of Kells and Celtic knotwork for years. I couldn’t believe I was now seeing it with my own eyes.

Our hotel was located along the banks of the River Liffey across from the famous Guinness Brewery in St. James’s Gate. From there we visited Kilmainham Gaol and stood on the site in the stonecutter’s yard where the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising were executed. We went to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, founded at the end of the 12th century and the heart of the Anglican Church of Ireland since the Reformation. The inaugural performance of Handel’s Messiah was held there in 1742 when the great satirist Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) was Dean. The cathedral holds Swift’s tomb as well as King William III’s chair and the battle flags of Irish regiments who served in the British Army.

Later that day we went to Glasnevin Cemetery with its forest of Celtic crosses and majestic O’Connell Tower, dedicated to the “Great Emancipator” Daniel O’Connell (1775-1847) who fought for the civil rights of Irish Catholics. We paid our respects to several other notable figures of Irish history who are buried there, including Constance Markievicz (1868-1927), Eamon de Valera (1882-1975), Charles Stewart Parnell (1846-1891), James Larkin (1876-1947), Roger Casement (1864-1916), and Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa (1831-1915). At the grave of Michael Collins (1890-1922), our bagpiper played a lament, attracting an appreciative audience of cemetery visitors and staff.

The next day we visited O’Connell Street and the General Post Office, where Patrick Pearse (1879-1916) and the other Easter Rising leaders had made their headquarters. Bullet holes could still be seen in its walls, and a bronze plaque commemorated the Proclamation of the Irish Republic. We walked across the Ha’Penny Bridge and lunched at the Brazen Head, Ireland’s oldest pub (founded in 1198). I was enthralled by the architecture, the street buskers, the shops, and the statues and monuments to historic figures. On the way back to our hotel, we walked past the neoclassical dome and columns of the Custom House, where a fire set by the IRA during the Irish War of Independence burned many priceless historical documents in 1921.

Neoclassical collonade of the Custom House in Dublin, designed by architect James Gandon and completed in 1791. The building and many of its vital records were burned during the Irish War of Independence in 1921. It was rebuilt and renovated with Irish limestone in the 1980s. Photo Copyright (c) 2000 Torin Finney.

From Dublin we headed west across central Ireland. I marveled at the legendary beauty of the rolling green landscape, even more enchanting in person than it had been in pictures. No wonder Irish people are said to be able to distinguish between the seventy shades of green. In County Tipperary we visited the Rock of Cashel, an impressive medieval castle church and traditional home of Irish kings. As we drove west, we stopped in quaint little towns and slowed the bus on several occasions while herds of sheep crossed the road. The wooly animals were painted with different colors to identify their owners and separate them when they returned home in the evening. These “commuters,” our tour guide informed us, were known locally as “an Irish traffic jam.”

After several such charming delays, we arrived at last in the international city of Galway. I was particularly interested in seeing this part of western Ireland, as I knew that my Finney (Feeney) ancestors hailed from Connaught. Some came from the windswept, barren mountains and lakes of Connemara and others from the green farmlands of County Roscommon. In Galway City we visited colorful storefronts and pedestrian thoroughfares of the Latin Quarter and Shop Street. Here I heard native Irish (Gaelic) speakers for the first time when I passed two elderly gentlemen in woolen golf caps, wreathed in pipe smoke as they conversed. I felt I was hearing the voice of ancient Ireland at last.

Dunguaire Castle near Kinvara in County Galway, named after the legendary King of Connaught. The 16th century tower has been featured in several films over the years. Photo Copyright (c) 2000 Torin Finney.

We headed south from Galway and drove through the Burren to see the dramatic Cliffs of Moher, where we climbed the O’Brien Tower and listened to our bagpiper serenade the birds above and the crowds of tourists below. A strong Atlantic wind whipped his hair and the tassle of his pipes out like the pennant on a ship. As I watched the waves crash against the cliffs, I remembered seeing this stunning vista in one of the scenes from The Princess Bride in 1987. The Cliffs of Moher have been featured in many other Hollywood movies in the years since then, including the popular Harry Potter series.

The breathtaking Cliffs of Moher in County Clare. My great-great-grandmother, Mary Ann Lynch (1836-1905), was born near there and emigrated to Canada with her family in 1849. Photo Copyright (c) 2000 Torin Finney.

Returning to the area around Shannon Airport, we visited Bunratty Castle and Folk Park in County Clare and enjoyed climbing its narrow staircases. We toured the shops and a dirt-floored pub called Durty Nelly’s and then attended a musical show at a nearby restaurant. The band allowed me to step to the microphone and sing “She Moved Thro’ the Fair,” a traditional Irish lament I had performed a few years earlier when I sang with a progressive rock band in Sacramento. It was an unforgettable moment. The band leader smiled when I finished the song and said, “I can hear Ireland in your voice.”

Traditional Irish phone booth in County Clare. Ireland was still using the pound (punt Eireannach) as its national currency when I visited in April of 2000. They changed to the Euro in 2002. Photo Copyright (c) Torin Finney.

We continued on to Muckross House near Killarney and drove into the sweeping landscape of the Lakes of Killarney. The bilingual Irish road signs and rugged slopes of MacGillicuddy’s Reeks filled me with awe and stirred the imagination. As we drove through a rocky landscape filled with the ruins of 19th century cottages, I thought of my Lynch ancestors and the pain and suffering they must have experienced as they faced the decision of leaving their native land. We passed the childhood home of Daniel O’Connell and monuments to Brendan the Navigator and victims of the potato famine. This entire stretch of Irish countryside filled me with a deep sadness.

Bilingual road signs in Irish and English in western Ireland’s Ring of Kerry. Photo Copyright (c) 2000 Torin Finney.

Moving into southern Ireland, we visited Blarney Castle in County Cork, where most of our party climbed the stone battlements and allowed ourselves to be hoisted upside down to kiss the famous Blarney Stone. Whether or not we were granted the legendary “gift of gab” as a result, most of us were certainly chattering excitedly when we saw the showroom of the marvelous Waterford Crystal factory on our way back to Dublin. The stunning Times Square Ball, constructed from over 500 crystal panes for use in the recent Millennium New Year’s Eve celebration in New York City, was on display and being worked on by the skilled Waterford artisans.

The final leg of our tour took us to the elegant Powerscourt Estate and Gardens, impressive in their grandeur but also a solemn reminder of the powerful Anglo-Irish “Ascendancy” class that ruled the country for centuries. The Grecian and Asian themes of the gardens were well designed and maintained, but certainly not Irish in the traditional Celtic sense of the word. I felt like Tommy in Brigadoon, already slipping away inexorably from the fairy tale land of my dreams. But my reverie was interrupted by last minute duties as chaperone. We stayed our last night in a fine hotel near Killiney Bay and boarded our plane home to the United States the next day.

I watched from my window seat as our plane departed from Irish soil and kept my eyes fixed on the receding landscape as we ascended. Passing clouds obscured my view, but parted just long enough to catch a final glimpse of the verdant peninsulas of Galway and Kerry stretching their fingers of land into the Atlantic, as if they were waving a poignant farewell. My feelings in that moment were profound grief mixed with gratitude. Perhaps I had somehow accessed ancestral memories during my week there. My forebears loved their green native land, as I had come to do during my visit, but were undoubtedly thankful to escape its sad history and embrace a new life in America. I returned to my own native land strengthened and inspired by their example.

Monument to the victims of the Great Famine in County Kerry. More than two million Irish perished or emigrated in the years between 1845 and 1850, including several of my ancestors. Copyright (c) 2000 Torin Finney.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for tutoring, please visit my website at

Virginia is for History Lovers

Map of Virginia during the American Civil War (1861-1865). Two years after Virginia seceded from the Union to join the Confederacy, the western counties of the state seceded and formed the Union state of West Virginia.

I moved to Virginia in March of 1973 in the middle of the sixth grade. We were living in Memphis, Tennessee and my father was offered a job at Madison College (renamed James Madison University right before I moved to California in 1977) in Harrisonburg, a small town in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley. Four years earlier, the state tourism board had adopted the new slogan “Virginia is For Lovers.” The round black buttons with the white letters and red heart were everywhere when we arrived.

I would learn over the next four and a half years that Virginia was (and is) especially a place for history lovers. Eight U.S. Presidents were born there, including four of the first five. The first permanent settlement in English-speaking America was established there at Jamestown in 1607. Virginia grew from trade in tobacco, iron, and slaves to the most populous and powerful of the thirteen British colonies, and played a major role in achieving American independence from Great Britain. The preserved buildings and historical recreations at Colonial Williamsburg seek to capture the feel and significance of this bygone era.

Jamestown and Williamsburg are located near the Atlantic Coast, and I visited them both when my parents took me to Virginia Beach for summer vacation. Harrisonburg, however, is located in the northwestern portion of the “Old Dominion,” and it was there where most of my childhood historical adventures took place. The town had a population of around 14,000 inhabitants at the time (today there are close to 50,000) and was surrounded by rich farmland and the parallel forested spines of the Allegheny and Blue Ridge Mountains. Harrisonburg itself sat in the shadow of Massanutten Mountain, a popular hiking spot in summer and ski resort in winter.

I settled into my new school and formed friendships. I still had a few months of the sixth grade to finish before moving on to Thomas Harrison Junior High School, named after the 18th century settler who founded the town. Once in junior high, I began visiting local historic and cultural sites while delivering newspapers for the Richmond Times-Dispatch (see painted rock below). American history was my favorite class in school. I joined a local Boy Scout troop and attended a Presbyterian church that met in an old farmhouse used as a hospital in the Civil War.

My first job was as a paperboy for the Richmond Times-Dispatch when I was attending school in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Artwork Copyright (c) 2017 Torin Finney.

My mother was an avid history buff, and took me with her to several noteworthy places in the area, beginning with Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s stately home in the hills above Charlottesville. She was a big admirer of Jefferson and his eclectic interests. I saw evidence of these in his extensive gardens, the titles in his library, and the collection of artifacts and inventions that were displayed in every room. I marveled at the map brought back by Lewis and Clark and the scientific instruments of Jefferson’s private study. The grounds were lovely and serene and filled with flowers at the time. We had lunch at the nearby Michie Tavern, built in 1784 and a local gathering place during the first decades of the Commonwealth.

I also visited historic homes in the northern part of Virginia, including George Washington’s Mount Vernon and Stratford Hall, the childhood home of General Robert E. Lee. Like Monticello, these houses were well-kept and filled with period furniture and fascinating exhibits. I made several trips to the museums of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC during my time in Harrisonburg, particularly the National Museum of American History, where I saw the gigantic Fort McHenry garrison flag, known throughout the world as the “Star-Spangled Banner.” The museum remains a major attraction today, along with its sister museums scattered throughout the nation’s capital.

Living in the Shenandoah Valley brought the sights, sounds, and tastes of the past alive. There were so many historic churches, storefronts, farms, schools, and battlefields that I was unable to take them all in as quickly as I wanted. The Highland Maple Festival in nearby Highland County showcased colonial arts and crafts and local bluegrass music. Grocery stores had iron horse hitching posts in the parking lot to accommodate the buggies of the local Mennonite community. Farmer’s markets offered delicious and wholesome produce from fertile fields that had been feeding the Valley for two centuries. My mother was enraptured by the recently published Foxfire book series that highlighted traditional Appalachian recipes, crafts, and medicinal remedies.

There were many recreational activities of which I took advantage. Hiking and camping in the mountains of Shenandoah National Park, canoeing down the Shenandoah and New Rivers, bicycling up and down the hilly country roads, and spelunking in local caves were all fun pastimes I enjoyed, especially in spring and summer. I attended high school football and minor league baseball games. I worked in a summer day camp for disabled adults at my church. There were art activities, live music, and holiday festivals all year. Fourth of July fireworks in the nearby village of Elkton in the Bicentennial summer of 1976 were particularly memorable.

Living in such a rich historical environment inspired me to create. I wrote a novel set on the 18th century frontier. I joined a Dungeons and Dragons role playing group in 1975, the year after the paperback rule books were first published by Tactical Studies Rules, Inc. (TSR). I acted and sang in school plays and musicals. I helped my mother dig, plant, and harvest in our extensive backyard vegetable garden. Afterwards we canned fruit together. I wrote letters and poetry. I collected records, costumes, and miniatures. It was a prolific time for a young artist.

In my sophomore year at Harrisonburg High School, I signed up for an independent study course that allowed me to explore a local historical topic in detail and create a special project. I decided to design a board game on the French and Indian War (1754-1763) which I entitled The Fall of New France. I met with history professors at Madison College and began drawing a playing board and pieces, as well as uniforms of the participants (see below). Virginia played an important part in the colonial struggle between England and France. Young George Washington experienced his first taste of battle at Jumonville Glen and Fort Necessity, just over the border in southwestern Pennsylvania, and spent the remainder of the war defending the Virginia frontier.

One of the drawings I completed for a special studies project in American history at Harrisonburg High School, a detailed board game on the French and Indian War called The Fall of New France. Copyright (c) 1976 Torin Finney.

The historical period that commanded my greatest interest, though, was the American Civil War (1861-1865), in which the Shenandoah Valley formed a major theater of operations. After Virginia seceded from the Union, the Valley provided vital food, horses, and other supplies to the Confederate armies. As such, it became a target for repeated Union invasion. General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s brilliant Valley Campaign of 1862 hurled back several Northern attempts to seize the Valley. I remember visiting the monument to slain Confederate cavalry commander Turner Ashby in the woods near Harrisonburg. Ashby was somewhat of a local legend and was the namesake of our rival high school.

I visited local Civil War battlefields at Port Republic and Cross Keys and attended my first reenactment in the Bicentennial summer of 1976. Winchester to the north of Harrisonburg changed hands more than 70 times during the war. The Cedar Creek Battlefield was an interesting destination in the middle of a rich pastoral landscape, as was the New Market Battlefield, where the May 15, 1864 charge of the Virginia Military Institute cadets is reenacted annually. I enjoyed watching the 1965 film Shenandoah with Jimmy Stewart, which was staged as a Broadway musical while I was living in the Valley.

Elsewhere in the state are the battlefields of Manassas, Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania, and the cluster of sites at Richmond National Battlefield Park, where the outcome of the war was decided in the climactic standoff in 1864-1865 between Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant. I also enjoyed visiting the Revolutionary War battlefield at Yorktown, which figured prominently in McClellan’s 1862 Peninsula Campaign. Numerous restored 18th and 19th century homes are scattered across the state and show how prominent civilians lived and struggled during these pivotal periods in history. I walked the halls and grounds of many of them during my years there.

I had plans to finish high school in Harrisonburg and stay local for college, perhaps at the iconic University of Virginia campus designed by Thomas Jefferson in Charlottesville. But then my father was offered a job at California State University, Long Beach in the summer of 1977, and my time in the Old Dominion came to an end. I have returned only once in the years since then, in August of 1983 when I was visiting Washington, DC before my first semester of graduate school in Boston. Harrisonburg still looked much the same, including the brick house where I lived as a teenager with its sloping acre of grass and willow trees.

It has changed considerably since then, according to stories from friends and colleagues and information I have seen on the internet. I can still recall the dogwood blossoms in spring, the fireflies of the humid summer, raking leaves in the cool autumn air, and sledding down the nearby hills in winter. But most importantly, my time and experiences in the Shenandoah Valley and other parts of Virginia nourished my love of American history. From these roots grew a fruitful career in teaching and reenacting. Whether or not I see the Old Dominion with my own eyes again, I will always treasure my memories of its natural beauty and rich past.

Another drawing from the playing board of my high school simulation game design on the French and Indian War, The Fall of New France. Copyright (c) 1976 Torin Finney.

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