A Carroll College professor with a striking resemblance to Abraham Lincoln made a guest appearance in several Helena elementary schools last week in celebration of the 16th president’s 204th birthday, regaling students with tales and trivia from the man’s childhood.
Steve Harper, a computer science professor at Carroll, stopped by Bryant, Hawthorne and Rossiter Elementary schools last week, visiting classrooms dressed in a stovepipe hat, black bowtie and black double-breasted jacket and trousers.
In Gary Myers’ third grade classroom at Rossiter, Harper acted out scenes and legends from Lincoln’s childhood for an audience of spellbound students.
“One time, my friend Austin and I got to go hunting partridge,” Harper said to the students. “Ever heard of partridge? What’s a partridge?”
“It’s kind of like a hotel, kind of,” one student suggested.
“It’s a bird?” another student asked.
“Yes, it’s kind of like a little pheasant,” Harper said. “We were out bird hunting, and we spotted a partridge, and we said, ‘We’ve got to get over there.’ Only, between us and the partridge there was Knob Creek.”
The creek was swollen from recent rains, Harper explained, and he needed to get to the other side to reach the partridge.
“We were looking for a way across,” Harper said, pretending to search for a way to cross the imaginary creek.
“A log,” one student chimed in.
“I found a log, that’s right,” Harper said, balancing on an imaginary log. “Going across — and you know how logs are when it’s slippery and kind of rainy?”
Suddenly, Harper collapsed against a student’s desk and shouted, “And I fell in! And I don’t know how to swim! I was so scared. Do any of you know how to swim?”
Enthralled students across the classroom shot their hands up, confirming that they knew how to swim.
“Now, it was my mother who first said I could go to school,” Harper said, transitioning to another bit of trivia from Lincoln’s childhood. “I was so excited to go to school. It was called a ‘blab’ school. It was a one-room cabin. Why do you think it was called a ‘blab’ school?”
“Because it was messy,” a student said.
“Well, it had a dirt floor, but I wouldn’t call it messy,” Harper said. “But you know why they called it a ‘blab’ school? It’s because they had all the grades, all the children in one room at the same time, and we all read our lessons out loud.
“You know how I learned to do my ABCs?” Harper asked. “We didn’t have pencils.”
Several students gasped in surprise.
“What do you think you’d use?” Harper asked.
“You had bird feathers,” one student said.
“When I was older we had bird feathers I could dip in ink,” Harper said. “But we didn’t have that when I was a child.”
The students paused again, stumped as to what Lincoln might have used to write his ABCs.
“Uh, you’re fingers,” one student suggested.
“Dirt,” another said.
“You know when you build a fire and you put the stick in the fire and it gets all black and charcoally on the end? That’s what we did,” Harper said.
He told the students about the time that Lincoln walked 20 miles to borrow a book on the history of the United States. Lincoln would stick the book in a crack between the logs in his childhood cabin when he was done reading for the night.
“Then one night I put it up there and you know what happened?” Harper asked the kids.
'What?” a student said.
“It rained,” Harper said dramatically.
The students gasped again.
“I mean, it really rained. It was coming down, raining so hard,” Harper said, visibly devastated at the fate of the doomed book. “The wind was blowing sideways, and it blew the rain in between the cracks — and in the morning it had ruined the book.
“I had to take the book back to the famer and say, ‘I’m so sorry I ruined your book.’ I even had to harvest corn for a couple of days to pay for it,” Harper said. “So sad, because I always loved reading books.”
“I was the 16th president of the United States, and I was proud to be president,” he told the students. “But, you know, it was hard to be president during the Civil War with all the fighting and people dying. I was proud to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. Have you heard of that?
“When I was president, I didn’t think we should have slaves,” Harper told the kids. “I always said, ‘Would you like to be a slave?’”
“I know,” one student said in disgust.
“And you know what I learned from all this?” Harper said, as the whole classroom watched him closely. “A lot of people said I wasn’t a very good president at all. A lot of people said I looked like a big ape, and a big laughable buffoon. A lot of people said I never should have been elected President.
“What I know — you just have to do what you know is right, and you can grow up and do important things, too.”
After Harper left the classroom, several of the students reflected on what they liked about Abraham Lincoln and his visit to their class that day.
“I think he was pretty cool,” said Tanya Martin. “Well, that he tried to stop slavery — because I wouldn’t I want slavery to go around.”
“I don’t know, I just think he’s a really cool guy,” said third grader Seth Campbell of Abraham Lincoln. “I like that he was brave enough to be a president, stop the Civil War and cross that log.”