Filmmaker Ken Burns’ latest documentary, “The Address,” explores the meaning of the most famous two-minute speech in history through the students of Greenwood School in Putney, Vermont. Each year since its founding in 1978, the students –boys 11 to 17 years old, with a range of learning disabilities – are challenged to memorize and then recite the speech at a public event held around President Abraham Lincoln’s birthday.
Kevin Harrell of Indianapolis won a scholarship to attend Greenwood School. He transferred there from St. Luke’s Catholic School in 2012, a few months before Burns’ team began filming.
“For about three months, we had two camera people and a sound man in almost all of our classes,” said Harrell, who is 13 and a 7th grader at Greenwood.
Burns said he was moved to make the documentary after helping judge one of the annual speech competitions. He lives near Putney, in Walpole, N.H.
“I think there’s something about these kids that is so moving, and so inspirational, that they do something that’s really unbelievably tough, which is memorize some of the best words ever spoken,” Burns said.
In their months of preparation, the Greenwood students learn the speech word by word, paragraph by paragraph. Kevin has dyslexia, which makes reading difficult. He said that words on a page sometimes look like “alphabet soup.”
“I started with the first paragraph, or the first sentence, or whatever it was, and slowly moved on and on,” Kevin said. “But I would always go back over it. So I would never just say the second paragraph. I would say the first, second, third … and that’s what really cemented it in my head.
“I had a lot of help from my teachers, and it just got a lot easier with everyone helping me,” he said.
Kevin won first place among his middle-school classmates in this year’s speech competition at Greenwood, earning him the right to represent his school at a national competition.
He also played a prominent role in the film, serving as the narrator for its opening sequence. He and the other Greenwood students took a trip to Gettysburg with the film crew – a memorable event for Kevin – and he’s done a number of interviews for television, radio and print. Still, Kevin said, his lasting memory may be the Gettysburg Address itself.
“Like Ken Burns said, it’s one of the most important speeches in American history. It’s powerful words that would help us in almost any situation,” Kevin said. “I spent so much time memorizing it.
“I think that’s one thing that will stick with me for a while. It shows that with however much practice it takes, you can get around any difficulty.”