“Yes We Can”
Is This The Promised Land?
All summer long I’ve been patiently waiting for President Barack Obama’s audiobook version of his new book, A Promised Land. After about 4 months of moving up a ridiculously long waiting list, it finally happened last week. Having just come out last August, this book is very popular and free copies are hard to come by. I am finishing out my last few days of summer vacation soaking up the words of Barack Obama.
Within the time period President Obama first announced his candidacy, defeated Hillary in the primary and eventually went on to become president of the United States, I was finishing up Montessori training.
Reliving the 2007-2008 Obama years is like reliving my transition into education. The early years, if you will.
During that time, I had so much to do I was barely able to follow his climb to the executive office. There wasn’t much opportunity to socialize with friends, but when I could they would occasionally give me updates. Back then, I didn’t have a television, so my car radio was almost always set to NPR. I have always appreciated their balanced approach to news reporting. I would catch snippets here and there in between course lectures and practice teaching.
I remember only a few parts vividly. What I recall best, is feeling surprised while following the results of the 2008 spring primary election. Before that day, I had been certain Hillary had the election wrapped in a bow (and of course, I would relive this with her again in late 2016).
Stepping out of the small Community Center building where I had just voted into its large, crowded parking lot, I recollect looking up into that sunny, spring blue sky. I was so close to being done with my training that I could taste it.
These are the reasons that make listening to this book most intriguing. In his own words and with his own voice, President Obama is filling in the details I was unable to receive the first time around.
He shares that when he came up with the slogan, ‘Yes We Can’ he thought it to be corny and was planning not to use it. Michelle Obama talked him into keeping it, instead.
Now, I am beginning to understand – at least from his perspective – how this now distant memory came to be. I appreciate, too, that he doesn’t seem to be pulling any punches. If something or someone deserves to be criticized, he does. Including himself.
As I listen to his book, I keep thinking to myself, what a masterful orator. Even if you don’t agree with his politics, you would have to agree with this sentiment, if listening with an open mind.
No matter what was happening in my life, I always felt hopeful after listening to him speak. I imagine Obama’s words and his passions touched people in a way similar to the Kennedy’s back in the 60s.
Robert F. Kennedy’s most famous speech, “A Call For Peace” was of crucial importance the night Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed in 1968. His compassionate words comforted the Indianapolis crowd while many other large city fell into riots.
Politics always played an important role to my family while growing up. When in elementary school, I remember helping my father canvas neighborhoods during local elections.
He was quite active in his labor union, inspired by his father who had been a labor organizer in Madison, WI. As a result of my grandfather’s position, the child version of my father even had the opportunity to meet John F. Kennedy when traveling through our state capitol. He speaks of this memory quite fondly.
Despite my family’s working class and union ties, I personally, don’t view myself as a democrat or as a republican. Instead, I’ve often looked to third parties. To me, a two-party system feels like a perpetual stalemate. And stalemates will always benefit the status quo. Furthermore, I believe very strongly in campaign finance reform, aka the need to limit election spending. It might give people who aren’t millionaires a chance to play in the sandbox too.
Even though I possess a deep skepticism in the system, I have voted in just about every election I have been eligible for. The first of which was the presidential general election in 1992, the first U.S. election after my 18th birthday. I had cast my vote in the basement of my college’s student union. It was the only other time in my life when it felt like a major political shift was occuring against the status quo.
The feeling was exhilarating, encouraging, and most importantly filled with hope.
The term I’ve been hearing repeated these days is appealing to ‘our better angels.’
“Our Better Angels of Our Nature”
I believe it was Abraham Lincoln who first coined this term. And for me, “better angels” is what drives my interest in a candidate. I will always gravitate to the person who is speaking to our better angels; the person appealing to our greatest hopes.
Inversely, I will always be repelled by the candidate who attempts to exploit our deepest fears. I look at this as reaching for the lowest hanging fruit. The snake oil salesman who magically appear when people are clutching despair. The one who says, “don’t worry, I can solve ALL your problems, all you have to do for me is hate.” And, usually that hate is of an off-white color.
With all the weirdness surrounding the last year or so I’ve had many more conversations about politics than I would have liked. I continue to hear some of the same comments. Things like, “elections don’t matter.” “All politicians are the same.” “You’re wasting your time.” “Nothing is ever going to change.”
Unfortunately, I feel myself sympathizing with these opinions more and more. But then I think back to what I experienced during my first year of teaching. This helps me to remember elections DO matter. Maybe not for their politics but certainly for their symbolism.
What I Learned My First Year Teaching
I didn’t know where I would end up after completing my training. My best guess was a lower elementary classroom somewhere in the Midwest.
For a hot minute, I debated moving with a number of my new friends to Portland, Oregon. Their public school system was just starting their new Montessori program. At that moment in time, they were heavily recruiting new Montessori teachers.
I had regretted staying in Milwaukee for a long, long time. That is, until now. The recent heatwaves and my discovery of the Pacific Northwest “heat dome” puts me at worry for those people. Now, I feel grateful for having stayed in the Midwest next to a great big lake full of clean, fresh water.
Instead of moving to some unique place, I started my teaching career here. It was in an upper elementary classroom in Milwaukee. Since the 1970s, Milwaukee has had a well-established Montessori public school program.
In fact, when comparing our current state politics to then, it amazes me as to how progressive and ahead of the curve we were in education during the 70s and 80s. We were truly blessed with the efforts of educational advocates and visionaries. Since then, we’ve seemed to have lost much of their vision.
The first established Montessori public school in Milwaukee was McDowell Montessori in 1977. I’m proud to say I had the honor of cutting my professional teeth there. McDowell continues thriving to this day. It is now a K3-12 school and houses one of the only Montessori high schools in the entire country!
In 2008, McDowell had well around 90% minority enrollment, most of whom were economically disadvantaged. Every student in my classroom, but one, was black American. This means I couldn’t have been in a better place that year. The year Barack Obama was elected the first person of color to our executive office.
Yes We Can
Our school set up a giant projector in the gym the morning of January 20th, the year after the 2008 presidential election. This was one of the first school-wide events I had ever participated in. Classrooms took terms coming in, sitting on the floor and watching parts of the inauguration. Many classrooms lingered in the gym right around noon. The excitement was palpable. I could feel that this was a very meaningful moment in our lives.
Educators will tell you that during your first-year teaching, you can barely keep your head above water, if at all. As for myself, I was floundering, thrashing at the massive waves. On this day, however, I was given one of my first opportunities to pause. For a few moments I was able to take things in and to burn them into my memory.
I took some time to look around the gym and quickly noticed a new teacher friend of mine standing behind her class, quietly crying to herself. She looked at me, waved her fists in the air and exclaimed aloud, “finally!” Examining the gazes fixed on the faces of our students, fully engaged in the history taking place in our makeshift theatre, I understood exactly what she meant.
Even if the politics can’t be changed, at least now each of these students felt maybe they too could grow up and though against extreme odds accomplish great things. At least for a moment.
Yes We Kam
Flash forward four years, I remember watching crowds of women crying after receiving news of the results of the 2016 presidential election. I don’t always agree with Hillary’s politics, but I will always respect her effort and her unwillingness to quit.
In the March, 2020 documentary simply called Hillary, she reflected on her experience. I can’t remember the words she shared exactly, but the gist was this: We had finally elected a man of color as president but despite being black he was still a man. Being a man is what was most important. It’s something about the idea of a woman in power that people are unwilling to except in our country.
Crowds of women cried again after receiving news of the results of the 2020 presidential election. Only this time, they cried joyously.
Just a few months prior, almost no one could have predicted a woman of color becoming vice president . It was as if all the circumstances had to play out as they did, the only way to break through the glass ceiling.
Putting aside politics, if you look at this with an open heart, it is once again a stunning accomplishment.
Instead of a democrat or a republican, I view myself to be a pragmatist. Can we change the fate of our world as it unravels before our eyes? Probably not.
What’s the likelihood of any of us growing up to become The President of the United States? Highly unlikely. Mostly just because we will never have enough money. Politicking is a rich man’s game.
But now, when the next generation daydreams about their future, can every child of every background share in earnest the same hopes? Girl, boy, or nonconforming. Black or white, Asian or African?
When asked the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” can each of these children respond with “President of the United States of America” and maybe actually believe it? Yes they can.
Yes we can.
Do you have thoughts on ‘Yes We Can,’ ‘Better Angels,’ or Politicking? Do you have a suggestion for another blog topic? Please send me an email with your ideas or experiences at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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