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Readin', Writin', and Railsplittin'

When I was growing up in the Midwest a century or so ago, we honored Lincoln on his birthday, and Washington on the day he was born. And neither day was a holiday in the sense that we did not have to go to school. In fact, our teachers generally structured class work around projects dealing with the two presidents.

Every year, on February 12, all the attention was on Honest Abe. We heard stories about how he was born poor in a log cabin, how he had to walk many miles to school each day, and how, as a young man, he worked as a manual laborer.

Most of us weren't sure what a "railsplitter" did, exactly, but we knew enough to know it was very hard work that helped build the growing communities on the American frontier. We also learned about Lincoln's career as a young lawyer in rural Illinois, and how that took him into politics and eventually to the White House.

As we moved up through the grades, the projects and assignments became more ambitious. At one point, we had to memorize the Gettysburg Address and be prepared to recite it in class in case one of us had the misfortune to be called on to perform.

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Written by Gary Paul Gates

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