Baltimore Man Recites the U.S. Constitution From Memory to Inspire Local Students
It’s a Friday afternoon in February at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African-American History and Culture, and Baltimore City schoolteacher T.S. Grant paces before a crowd of 150 students. Grant, who teaches government at the New Era Academy, is here today to recite the text of the U.S. Constitution from memory.
He paces the hardwood floor in front of the bleachers where the audience, made up of students from various public and private high schools in Baltimore, is seated. You’d think the event would be rather dry, especially for a crowd of students who probably could think of better ways to spend a Friday afternoon. But Grant keeps it interesting by treating the speech like a performance. His recitation is done in a conversational tone, and he gestures and paces while he speaks. The backdrop for the performance is a PowerPoint presentation that highlights each article, section, or amendment as he recites it. When certain amendments come up, he offers some theatrics—for example, when reciting Clause 8 of Section 8 of the Constitution, which gives Congress the power “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts,” Grant launches into his rendition of a human beatbox, prompting laughter from the students. For the entire hour and 15 minutes it takes him to get to the end of the 4,543-word document (not including amendments, which Grant also recited), he keeps the attention of his young audience.
Grant, 36 and a resident of Northeast Baltimore, says he first decided in the summer of 2005 to commit the U.S. Constitution to memory to keep himself sharp as an educator and as an informed civilian. He got up every morning at 4:30 a.m. to rehearse before work. He then rehearsed for two more hours a day after work to commit the words to memory. He says he found the effort inspiring and decided to do a public recitation last Sept. 17, the 218th anniversary of the nation’s founding document. He recited the Constitution that day at the Barnes and Noble bookstore in downtown Baltimore in front of a group of adults, and he says the effort was well received.
“What’s really humbling is when you get the older generation saying, ‘I really appreciate you doing this,’” he says, adding that he likes breaking the stereotype of the young African-American man. “It’s very encouraging when people of other races are impressed by it, and you know that they are.”
After that first event, Grant decided it would be a good idea to do a recitation for young people. He said he hoped to inspire some young adults—particularly African-Americans—to become more politically aware and active.
“Thurgood Marshall said his principal used to put him in the basement of the school as a punishment and make a copy of the Constitution,” Grant says. “So as a result [Marshall memorized it]. He also became a Supreme Court justice. . . . If one kid becomes a lawyer as a result of this recitation, that will be sweet.”
At the February performance at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum, it’s clear that he’s connecting with his audience. Students, who were given sheets to follow along as Grant recited, sat in rapt attention. Every so often Grant paused and looked at the ceiling, as if he were flipping through the pages of the document in his mind. Students shifted uncomfortably in their seats, waiting to see if he would remember the next phrase or passage. They breathe a collective sigh of relief when he gets it right.
Committing the Constitution to memory was a lot of work for Grant, but he says the effort is worth it if it spurs some interest in the students to familiarize themselves with their rights as U.S. citizens.
“If you don’t know how the government works and your rights within the government, it’s impossible to be empowered,” he says. “I want [the audience] to become politically active and literally engaged in the political process.”
And if the responses from some of his audience members is any indication, Grant’s performance seems to have opened at least a few young minds to the political process. Donald Phillips, a 16-year-old New Era Academy student, rooted for Grant throughout the recitation.
“His pauses were killing me,” Phillips said when asked how he liked the performance. “I was going crazy, thinking, Come on, come on, come on, you’ve almost got it.”
Phillips says watching Grant do his thing has inspired him to follow suit: “I’m going to work on memorizing the Constitution, too” he said. “I barely know the amendments right now, but I’m getting there.”
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