James Mars Day: A Student Chronicle of Real History | Clarence Nurse | 4 Min Read

I wasn’t happy with my school experience in New York City. I wanted more. This class at the Salisbury School (CT) has not only given me more but has also exceeded my wildest expectations about how enjoyable meaningful learning can be. It is now year two, and the course has shown no signs of losing momentum. 

A class where all students earn an “A+” might sound suspicious to someone on the outside, but after seeing what we have been able to produce, a better question would likely be “can students earn a higher grade than A+?” 

For example, if I were to Google “James Mars Day.” I would immediately see: 

“May 1st: Salisbury — May 1 has been decreed James Mars Day, and a Witness Stone will be placed to mark the state’s proclamation of the recognition. Apr 26, 2021” 

Google more, and you will find newspaper articles about the day, a highlight reel we produced, as well as a timeline of James Mars’s life. These are all simply a result of the drive that my classmates and I have experienced in doing meaningful work that we enjoy. A grade attached to this work misses the point entirely.

Now the backstory. In the middle of our Covid school year, I heard about a new project-based class offering where we would investigate stories of local Black families and document them. It sounded cool, so I was on board. When we began the following September, our teacher asked us to name 10 important Black people who lived before 1950. Embarrassingly, we struggled to name five, so for the next few weeks, we explored our nation’s past to examine U.S. history from a Black perspective. We next chose topics of interest, split into groups, and got to work. 

I paired with a classmate, and our first topic was examining the 18th and 19th-century connections between Haiti and Connecticut. Our vision was to search for traces of the Haitian community in the state and create a podcast to share what we learned. We found this research exceedingly difficult. There is not much out there, and we were unable to connect with people or organizations who might have been able to guide us. At the end of the first trimester, all we ended up with was a PowerPoint about a family who came to Connecticut from Haiti and enrolled their daughter in a school. While the story was interesting (racist members of the community shut the school down), at the end of the trimester, we were disappointed. We felt that it was a typically standard history presentation. 

However, another group of classmates investigated the story of a freedman turned author, James Mars. They made a timeline of his life and presented it to the class. It was good. It was so good that we decided that a timeline simply did not do justice to his story. 

When we came back to class after Thanksgiving, we decided to honor him by placing a Witness Stone outside of the Norfolk, CT church where he served as a deacon. Several classmates and I decided to join this endeavor. We contacted the Witness Stone Project and began gathering as much information as possible. The more we learned, the more impressed we became with James Mars. We also began telling his story to educate others. The more we talked, the better we got, and the more this work helped us find ourselves as students. We spoke in front of historical societies, church groups, and preservation organizations. More and more people were curious about Mars’s story. Eventually, a classmate of mine, Ryan Wilson, proclaimed that a Witness Stone did not do the man enough justice. He suggested, “How about we create a James Mars Day?” Initially, we laughed, but the thought stayed with us. Why don’t we create a James Mars Day? It was possible, but it was not your typical classwork. As we contacted our state representative, state senators, our congresswoman, and our governor, this no longer felt like school at all.

Over spring break, our teacher texted the entire class with the good news that Governor Lamont agreed to proclaim May 1st James Mars Day. We were floored, it took a lot — it was not the easiest thing to get the Governor’s attention — but it turned out exactly as we dreamed. Furthermore, the governor was asking us to draw up the resolutions for the proclamation. Even though my classmates and I were on vacation, we got right to drafting. 

When we returned to school, we got right back to work preparing for the Witness Stone ceremony. Part of this was preparing high-level film equipment to live-stream the event and make a highlight reel of the day: 

I speak not only for me but all my classmates when I say that we’ve learned more about ourselves through class during one year than in all our time in school. Our strengths and weaknesses were put to the test, and our natural curiosity allowed things to get done at not only a high level but a fast pace. Who knows what the future holds for the expanding class? By putting the world of project-based learning on notice, we’ve opened doors we didn’t even know existed, all while most importantly, having fun along the way.

Clarence Nurse is a student at the Salisbury School in Salisbury, CT. The faculty members that worked with Clarence and his classmates are Meg Allen and Rhonan Mokriski. Intrepid Ed News welcomes articles from students who are doing work that is meaningful to them.

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