“Four score and seven years ago. . . ”
Most Americans immediately recognize these lines as the famed opening of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, delivered 150 years ago on Nov. 19. Reciting the rest, however, is a challenge better left to 15-year-old Jamaica Plain native Ethan Pond and his peers at the Greenwood School, who know Lincoln’s every syllable by heart.
For decades, each of the nearly 50 students at the tiny Vermont boarding school for boys with learning differences has been required to memorize and perform the entire speech at an annual competition before they can graduate.
Greenwood’s unusual curriculum, which is centered around the character-building challenge, caught the eye of Ken Burns, the award-winning documentary filmmaker behind classic series like “The Civil War” and “Baseball.” Burns accepted an invitation 10 years ago to help judge the students’ speeches, and has now completed a feature-length film on the school’s students and Lincoln’s speech that is set to air on PBS in April.
“I was moved to tears by the heroic nature of the undertaking,” Burns said in a phone interview Sunday. “It’s a minefield for these kids. . . . You come away feeling refreshed and inspired.”
Burns’s film crew embedded themselves in Greenwood for about three months last winter, capturing 300 hours of footage as the students struggled to overcome a variety of learning challenges and master the brief, yet densely worded address.
Pond, who went to Greenwood for help conquering moderate social and learning issues, emerged as one of the stars of the film, which is titled “The Address.” He won the competition’s high school category with a seamless recitation that showed his trademark attention to detail; every pause and turn of phrase is delivered with pitch-perfect weightiness that never veers into overemoting.
“I was trying to imagine what Lincoln was feeling, standing on a battlefield with graves all around him,” Pond said by phone from the Greenwood campus in Putney, Vt., on Sunday. “I thought about the fact that this was a war fought by brothers and family members. That was the most powerful part for me, knowing he had to give this speech to heal the union.”
While other students had trouble with memorization and pronunciation, Pond learned the speech in less than a week. His struggle was different: Reining in a glut of confidence that made him feel more connected to his instructors than his peers.
“When I first met Ethan, he was a very sweet guy who very much gravitated towards adults intellectually,” said Pond’s mentor, Greenwood dean of students Kelly O’Ryan. “Now, a year and a half later, it’s a radically different picture. He’s got a bunch of friends, and it’s not a one-way thing. These are strong, reciprocal friendships.”
Indeed, Pond spent the night of the February competition urging on his classmates.
“I went backstage to help out my other friends who were really terrified of doing this,” Pond said. “I said, ‘look, I’ve heard you say it a bunch of times. You should not be worried you’re going to get it wrong, because I’m not worried you’re going to get it wrong.’ ‘’
Burns draws a direct parallel between the personal transformation of students like Pond and the “new birth of freedom” Lincoln hoped his young country would experience.
“The Greenwood students are escaping the specific gravity of whatever learning difference they have,” Burns said. “It becomes not only an exercise and a lesson, but a hugely symbolic thing where they literally transcend their challenge and have a new birth of freedom as a person.”
In connection with the speech’s 150th anniversary Tuesday, Burns is challenging Americans to take up the Greenwood project, memorize the Gettysburg Address, and post a video of their recitation on his site, learntheaddress.com. All the living presidents, along with comedians, TV personalities, and hundreds of ordinary citizens, have contributed so far.
Even though Pond mastered Lincoln’s speech in his first year at Greenwood — a rare feat at the school — the sophomore has years of academic and social work to complete between now and his graduation. During that time, he also hopes to help other students meet the Gettysburg challenge.
And although Pond is not sure what he wants to do with his life just yet, his blossoming friendship with Burns has him considering a career in broadcasting.