When President Barack Obama first ran for office in 2008, I wasn’t yet 18. A high-school junior, I had recently transferred from the big public school district in which I’d been educated almost my whole life to an independent high school with something of a hippy-dippy reputation. Suddenly, instead of the usual high-school stereotypes — jocks and nerds, band geeks and skate punks — I was surrounded by witty, nuanced, engaging peers who cared deeply about the world.
Of course, that’s not to say my peers at public high school didn’t care deeply about the world too. That caring though, in a school with over 2,500 students, wasn’t exactly encouraged. There just wasn’t time. Not for the teachers, who had standardized tests to focus on. Not for the administrators, who were busy dealing with punitive disciplinary issues and overwrought parental concerns. Certainly not for the sports coaches and arts teachers, who already went far beyond the call of duty when it came to giving of themselves.
So switching to private school was a revelation. Suddenly, all my teachers wanted to know what I thought. Not only that, they wanted to know why. They encouraged us to attend marches, to sign petitions, to indulge ourselves in curiosity. The year of a presidential election, they opened school-wide forums for open debate. They brought in speakers who gave us a variety of perspectives about they world. There was no dedicated ‘civics’ class, but demonstrations of good citizenship were all around us. In the morning meetings governed by Robert’s Rules of Order. In our seminars on the Vietnam Conflict, and the gruff and tearful lectures from war veterans and refugees alike. In every eye-opening history class that did not shy away from showing sixteen-year-olds how messy democracy is.
At private school, there was no blind patriotism. There was no history written only by the victors. We didn’t have to say the Pledge of Allegiance in homeroom every day; in fact, we had debates about its constitutionality. We read books by authors of color, by women, by queer and trans folk just as often as we read Shakespeare and Thoreau. We learned about the Trail of Tears and our nation’s history of genocide. We studied Jim Crow and learned about lynchings and discrimination of all kinds. We asked question after question after question and we were never turned away. We were never told we were too young to know. We were never rebuffed, renounced, or shot down. Thinking critically wasn’t merely an expectation, but a requirement.
Thus, on that campus hidden away in the shadow of a mountaintop, Barack Obama’s candidacy created a palpable sense of excitement. It didn’t matter that a vast majority of the student body wasn’t yet eligible to vote. We cared. We believed. We knew that, age aside, we not only could make a difference, but we had to. We were being taught everyday that our privilege was palpable; it didn’t mean that we were guilty, but it did mean that we were responsible. Every day, we went to school and we learned our history. The good, the bad, and the horrifyingly ugly. We learned that America works because it was founded on the idea of working together for a common good.
Sure, I’m making this sound a little too idyllic. It wasn’t. It was high school. There was school drama and relationship drama and friendship drama. There was total idiocy and surprising insight. There was silliness and seriousness. There were kids who were incredibly stupid and kids who were terrifyingly smart. This wasn’t Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters — we were no one special. What was special though, was the trust that was placed in us. Our teachers put the future in our hands, and they did it with our eyes wide open. They made sure we knew that we had a responsibility to do good work. I’ve never turned back from that.
So last night, when President Obama stood at a public podium for the last time as President of the United States, I hoped that he would return to that spirit of doing good work. He did not disappoint.
This man, he’s something. I haven’t always agreed with him. Sometimes I’ve been disappointed by him. Not for one second though, have I doubted his dedication to the common good. It is clear that he comes from a place of empathy. He believes that “we serve not to score points or take credit, but to make people’s lives better.” He has worked tirelessly for 8 long years to live up to our founding creed and ensure that America moves forward. His has tried to help us “embrace all, and not just some.”
President Obama has looked at our painful history, and he hasn’t shied away from it. That’s made people angry. So angry, in fact, that many Americans have pushed back against our forward momentum. They have retreated to a place of fear and in doing so they have scorned those who are different from them. In the face of ugly truths they have become defensive. They have denied wrongdoing. They have not realized that they are not guilty, but responsible, and they don’t want to be.
Burying our heads in the sand though? It won’t work. It can’t. Selfishness and isolation and ignorance, they don’t help you. They don’t help me. America is a nation of individuals, but the rights and privileges of each and every one of us are inexorably tied. My success is tied to yours, yours to mine, and ours to all our fellow citizens’. That’s a beautiful truth. It requires good faith. It requires curiosity and diligence. It requires good work. That’s something President Obama knows, too:
It falls to each of us to be those anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy. Embrace the joyous task we have been given to continually try to improve this great nation of ours because, for all our outward differences, we in fact all share the same proud type, the most important office in a democracy, citizen.
Citizen. So, you see, that’s what our democracy demands. It needs you. Not just when there’s an election, not just when you own narrow interest is at stake, but over the full span of a lifetime. If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the Internet, try talking with one of them in real life.
If something needs fixing, then lace up your shoes and do some organizing.
If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clip board, get some signatures, and run for office yourself.
Show up, dive in, stay at it. Sometimes you’ll win, sometimes you’ll lose. Presuming a reservoir in goodness, that can be a risk. And there will be times when the process will disappoint you. But for those of us fortunate enough to have been part of this one and to see it up close, let me tell you, it can energize and inspire. And more often than not, your faith in America and in Americans will be confirmed. Mine sure has been.
I’m not going to sugarcoat it. Going forward? I’m scared. Scared for my fellow women. Scared for so many of my friends. Friends who are people of color or Latinx, immigrants or Muslims, Jewish or disabled, gay or bi or lesbian or trans or infinite combinations thereof. Fear won’t stop me though. As President Obama told us yesterday, democracy only fails when we let it. This political landslide caused by fear and hate and insularity only moves forward if we allow it. I have no intention of allowing it. In the way I was taught by my family, and my friends, by my teachers at hippy-dippy school, and by my President, I am going to keep doing good work. Not just for me, but for every citizen of this great nation. That’s my responsibility. It’s yours too. I look forward to working with you.
Day 11: January 11, 2017