CHILHOWIE, Va. — Government and history teachers and students across America are discussing the Jan. 6 riot that broke out at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.
They certainly were with Smyth County’s 2021 Teacher of the Year, Jeff Robinson, American history teacher at Chilhowie High School. He said it occupied the first 30 minutes of his classes the following day.
“I wanted to make sure they realized the historic moment and the significance of it,” Robinson said. “We looked back to the only other time it happened, in 1814 during the War of 1812.”
During what was called the second war of independence, the British burned the Capitol in retaliation for the Americans burning the Canadian capital at York in 1813.
Not since then has the Capitol been breached. That is, until earlier this month, when rioters, apparently inflamed by words from President Trump who continues to claim the election was stolen and that the thousands gathered in Washington during the counting of the Electoral College votes by Congress should march on the Capitol in protest, did just that.
That march turned into a deadly riot that left five people dead, dozens injured and serious damage to the building that is often referred to as the temple of democracy. But it did not stop the constitutionally mandated counting of the Electoral College votes following a presidential election.
Robinson said he talked to his students about this process. It is studied during the year in historical context, and this particular Electoral College vote count will be a historic year, perhaps remembered forever, as are the attacks on Pearl Harbor and 9/11. He said he heard that Jan. 6 would be a date that would live in infamy.
“We have a tradition in this country of a peaceful transfer of power,” Robinson said, that has taken place since the founding of the country.
“This wasn’t peaceful,” he said.
Robinson said his students have been subjected to contentious elections and governing for most of their lives. The last two have been especially so.
“I tell them the last two elections were not supposed to be that way,” he said. “I tell them about the United States of America when everybody identified as Americans. They have lived in a polarized society all their lives.”
Robinson said some of the students were passionate in their opinions about the Capitol breach and on both sides of the presidential election.
“The U.S. has always been kind of the exception,” Robinson said, when it comes to the peaceful transfer of power following a presidential election. What happened Wednesday was the exception to that. “That is not supposed to happen here,” he said.
He had planned to talk about Vietnam on Thursday and the protests about the war. How people were shocked at the protests that took place. Now his students can see firsthand protests against the government and how it has shocked people.
Robinson said now is a time for government leaders to step up and do the right thing to calm the situation and bring people together. He talked to his students about how President Lincoln behaved after winning the Civil War. He didn’t brag about winning but instead worked to unify the country, he said.
He was at the school when the riot happened, Robinson said. He knew the vote count was supposed to begin around 1 p.m.
“I began looking at websites and thought, ‘Oh man.’” Those watching the Electoral College vote count and debate taking place inside suddenly switched to watching what was going on outside the chambers of Congress.
“I watched it all evening,” he said. “I just couldn’t believe it.”
Robinson said he needed to talk about it with his students, and he wanted them to understand. He said he believes they felt better after discussing it.
“Most said they disagreed with what they saw,” he said. “I was glad to hear that.”