Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Ushering in the new era

Televisions were on all over our school building today. I stepped back from "teaching" and did a lot of observing. I was so happy for my students, that they should have such a powerful and positive experience. "This is history today and all of us are a part of it, no matter our politics or ethnic background." That is all I said, and they sat so attentively and respectfully, drinking in every moment of the actual inauguration and the speech that followed.

I sat behind them, watching the young African-American students sitting up taller. The glow on their faces bounced around the room and I was suddenly struck all over again by the beautiful diversity of my students: Asian, Hispanic, black, white, students of native American descent and students who are children of immigrants -- all taking pride in the election of somebody who grew up "different" from the norm.

It was impossible not to reflect upon my own schooling, and I shared with one class that my education had been segregated because that's the way it was for most of us in the 1950s and 1960s. There was no diversity when I was in elementary school, nor in middle or high school. It wasn't until university that the faces around me in my classes took on a more global aspect. What a loss, is all I could think. We would have all been so much better off growing up mixed together rather than kept so far apart.

And then I thought of the times that we were drawn to the television for collective viewing when I was a student: the deaths of John and Bobby Kennedy and the death of Martin Luther King Jr. The race riots, The nightly Vietnam War death counts. The crumbling of the Nixon reign. About the only positive television memory I can summon was watching the astronauts take their first tentative steps toward outer space and eventually land on the moon.

But my students today were barely three years old when 9/11 shook our world. They hear others' memories of the ugliness of segregation, but have never experienced it for themselves. They have not seen the hatred that strikes down beloved leaders. I cannot expect that their lives will never be touched by a collective national tragedy. But I do expect that this youngest of generations will carry in their hearts and minds the memory of this day, and that they will find what it takes to move the human race further ahead socially, politically and ecologically.

Unfortunately, the bell rang in the middle of Obama's inaugural speech, and I had to usher out one class and bring in another, but what I heard was both bracing and inspiring and I couldn't wait to get home to find a transcription and reflect upon his words to us all. The following passage, in particular, is one to reflect upon and remember:
For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus - and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.

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