From Footnotes to Forefront
Dawei Huang, Stuyvesant High School
4 July 2017
When our teacher, Mr. Hanna, announced that we would be collaborating with students from the American School of Paris on a research project, the first feeling that I experienced was bravado typical of a Stuyvesant student. I came into this expecting to see familiar sights, but encountered a research landscape that was altogether distinct from anything I had seen before. The research that we had to collect for this assignment was not for a paper we had to write, or a presentation we had to give, but for the sake of sharing the information we would find. Although some may claim that being able to write a history paper (which I have) more than qualifies your ability to summarize information, I would say that the kind of research that I had to do for this assignment was entirely different. I had to dig through many primary sources — reading newspapers, interpreting data, and understanding figures — no longer relying on the secondary sources of historians to sort through the chaos of history for my convenience. Simply said, the experiences of individual soldiers are often overlooked by historians, and Stuyvesant students were now helping do the work. For myself, I feel like there is great significance and satisfaction lifting the lives of soldiers reserved for the footnotes of history to the forefront of our attention and appreciation.
After Mr. Hanna’s introduction, the next major step we took in this project as a class was a skype session with Mr. Neville’s students in Paris to discuss research techniques and what was expected from us. Despite some technical difficulties at the beginning, we were able to hold a meaningful conversation with our counterparts across the Atlantic. We were introduced to helpful sources to start our investigation and methods to ascertain the reliability of the sources and information. I was very impressed with the degree of sophistication they had put into their research and the effort they had expended to get to the point where they are now. I had expected to have a “smile and wave” session with middle school students but what I got instead was a true intellectual handshake with a prestigious overseas academy.
Towards the end of our session with the Paris students, we were discussing any interesting things we found about our soldiers. When Mr. Hanna asked about the possibility of there being a Stuy Alumni being among the ranks of the fallen American soldiers at the Suresnes American Cemetery in France, one of my classmates, Justin Chan, responded that there was. The soldier’s name was Calvin William Greene and when he revealed that I was assigned to him, it does not take one with a good imagination to imagine my shock.
When I skimmed the roster of the four names I was assigned to previously, they initially seemed unremarkable as the highest rank (belonging to Greene) was that of a Second Lieutenant. When I found out that Greene was a Stuyvesant alumni, it was quite ironic that that same soldier had now became the object of my interest. When I contacted Justin later that day to extract all the information he knew of Greene, he directed me to the Great War Plaque outside of the principal's office that commemorates all of the fallen soldiers during the war that were alumni of Stuyvesant High School. Although the plaque was not a major lead, it primarily served a motivational purpose for me — a big “Greene was here” at both Stuyvesant and France. I have much to thank Justin for because had it not been for him, I would never have known about the plaque and perhaps would never had known that Greene was a Stuyvesant alumni.
The next week or so after this revelation, Mr. Hanna reserved lab space for us in the computer room so that we could devote class time to gathering research on our soldiers. The first few days were without much success because we could only access sites that provided general information that rarely went beyond what was already provided to us in the roster. Although the NYC DOE computers were technically supposed to have access to important online databases, we were blocked by paywalls after paywalls. After Mr. Hanna was able to resolve this issue with our school’s technology department, our access to these rich databases greatly added to the quality of our research. My classmates and I were having a field day on the internet and were excited every so often after each finding that our exhaustive search was finally starting to bear fruit. I was not only able to access the military record of Greene and the rest of my soldiers but also newspaper clippings of obituaries written for some of them following their death.
In addition to doing research online at the computer lab, I was able to look through our school’s newspaper records for any information relating to my assigned soldiers. Mr. Hanna was nice enough to contact our school paper, the Spectator, on my behalf and arranged for me to browse its archives. Although the initial search through the Stuyvesant archives proved unfruitful for any records of Greene or World War I, Mr. Hanna was later able to acquire a yearbook from Greene’s year at Stuyvesant. Scans of this yearbook, which Mr. Hanna had made available to me, proved to be the best source I had come across because it offered an extremely detailed account of Greene’s characteristics as a charismatic leader with an undeniable physical aptitude. During his time at Stuyvesant High School, Greene was a star tennis player and manager of the school’s rowing team. As crew manager, Greene was both the student coach and the fitness trainer for the team. Given these personal attributes, it is no surprise that Greene aced his physical test with an almost superhuman rating of 99 and became one of the youngest commissioned officers in the country. Yet his transition from Stuyvesant tennis star and crew manager to aviator in a matter of years is nothing short of awe-inspiring. Had his life and career not been cut short by an unspecified aerospace accident, it is not hard for me to share in his friend’s beliefs that Greene would be numbered among America’s greatest aces.
At the conclusion of my research into the experience of these soldiers, especially that of Greene, I had much to consider and reflect upon. Had I not been motivated to participate in this project by Mr. Hanna, the lives of these soldiers altogether invisible in the annals of history would have been consigned to obscurity. In a way, these quiet men and women by actively enforcing the nation’s wartime policies did more to further their country’s agenda than the speeches given by any politician.
These words by Iain Duncan when given in the context of my research made me realize how much the efforts and experiences of these soldiers are undervalued by our historians in favor of politics and policy. Although national policies do give us a good picture of an era, I believe that the individual and collective experiences of soldiers should be evaluated in order to better capture the zeitgeist of the era. Since even the most prominent historians tend to favor politics or the military over the experiences of soldiers, it is no surprise that their texts meant to record past human affairs could feel so cold and distant to the average reader. Coming across the experiences of these soldiers and manner in which they died (either by accident or disease) made me abandon my romanticization of warfare for a much more realistic picture. The research that I had done, along with my classmates, on Greene and his fellow Americans buried at Surnes Cemetery would now become part of the database created by Mr. Neville and his students in Paris. I am excited to share what I have found with the world and I can only hope that all the work my classmates and I have done will contribute to the public’s knowledge and appreciation of these soldiers buried in Paris. It has been a great honor to contribute to this work and to allot to these soldiers the recognition and respect that they, by giving their life for their country, most certainly deserve.
Stuyvesant High School
4 July 2017