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Lessons from an unsinkable ship

I’ve been immersed in a drama of enormous proportions since January. I’ve run my mouth about it, forced others to join the fray, even put it all out there for the whole world to see on stage.

Funny, the mesmerizing power of the Titanic.

I’m not the first to be swept off my feet by its waves. The undertow of interest in the “unsinkable ship” has lasted more than 100 years, thanks to clever explorers (discovered the wreckage in 1985), a blockbuster movie (never saw it), and crowd-drawing museums (in Branson, Pigeon Forge and Belfast, which is way, way over the pond).

But when the idea came up for a weeks-long study resulting in a Titanic-themed banquet, I wasn’t exactly, shall we say, on board. I mean, it was a tragedy, right? How could I get a wide age range of students interested in that?

Well, I found out it’s not that difficult. You just hand them a book. Or two. It helps if they have pictures — legit black and white ones. We combined that with some key discussions and a few interactive games and voila! We wound up with a table of Titanic projects that ran the gamut — a quilt, short stories, iceberg demos, a computerized tour of the ship and a 3-foot edible model. I knew we hit pay dirt when a mom called me April 15.

“My kids woke up and the first thing they said was, ‘This was the day, Mama.’”

“The day?” she asked, knowing taxes were nowhere on their radar.

“The day the Titanic went down. Don’t you remember?” 

True enough. The largest, most luxurious ocean liner of its time sideswiped an iceberg on Day 4 of its maiden voyage. That happened at 11:40 p.m. on April 14, 1912, and within two and a half hours later, it broke apart and sank. The ship carried enough lifeboats for only half of its 2,200 passengers and crew. Some 1,500 people lost their lives.

And that’s just the surface story. Beyond textbook entries, the R.M.S. Titanic disaster is rife with interesting layers. There’s the engineering aspect of watertight compartments, the class struggle evident in access to lifeboats, the science behind hypothermia. There’s the failure to heed ice warnings, radio signals and flares. There’s the telling transcript from senate hearings during the fallout, including an exchange between crew member Frederick Fleet and a senator. Here they discuss the absence of binoculars in the crow’s nest.   

Senator Smith: Did you make any request for glasses on the Titanic?

Fleet: We asked [for] them in Southampton [England], and they said there was none for us. . . .

Smith: You had a pair of glasses from Belfast to Southampton?

Fleet: Yes, sir, but none from Southampton to New York. . . .

Smith: Suppose you had glasses such as you had between Belfast and Southampton, could you have seen this black object [the iceberg] at a greater distance?

Fleet: We could have seen it a bit sooner.

Smith: How much sooner?

Fleet: Well, enough to get out of the way.

Poor Mr. Fleet. He thought being bounced around between foster homes was bad, then all this happened on his first try at being lookout.

So it’s putting names and faces and backstories together that really pulls the Titanic heart strings. Take the Sage family. Englishman John Sage and his brood were looking to start a new life in Canada when they boarded the Titanic as third-class passengers. Sadly, all 11 family members died in the disaster.

Annie Funk was an American missionary to India, where she taught children. Her body was never recovered, but the school she served was renamed in her memory.

Second-class passenger John Harper was on his way to preach at Moody Church in Chicago. The inscription in a Scottish cemetery says he “was called to higher service from the deck of the ill-fated Titanic.”

Overall, the numbers weren’t good for men like Harper in second-class. Ninety-two percent of them died. While only one child in first-class perished, 52 of 79 in steerage didn’t make it. Third class was nearly as lethal for women. Less than half survived.   

Yet despite the great loss of life, the Titanic left a legacy that has positive notes. Things changed on the seas. Ships now carry enough lifeboats for all their passengers. Radios must be monitored 24/7. An international ice patrol cruises the oceans.   

Then, of course, there was the “women and children first” mantra, and how, for the most part, it was lived out that night. Harvey Thew put it in poetic perspective when he described it as a night when “manhood perished not.”

And in the afterglow of the banquet, where I dined on the first-class menu and wore a fur stole scored from a Monticello junk store, I can find no better summary of this semester’s study than this one, from a book called The Sinking of the Titanic and Great Sea Disasters:   

If the story of the Titanic is more than a mere compilation of interesting facts and details — and it is — if her lessons speak to transcendent truths — and they do — then we must be willing to remember the great ship for what she truly was — a reminder that man may plan his ways, but it is God who directs our steps.

Kim Henderson is a freelance writer. Contact her at kimhenderson319@gmail.com. Follow her on twitter at @kimhenderson319.