by Tricia Guest
The last thing I wrote on my chalkboard as I left my classroom on Election Day was “Congratulations Senator.” As much as I wanted to think that Barack Obama had the election wrapped up, there had been too many articles about the Bradley Effect and one too many McCain-Palin signs in my solidly middle class neighborhood for me to be more confident. I figured I would be a good sport no matter what the turnout was and show my second and third graders support for the new president.
When I was able to fill in “Obama!” and display Wednesday’s morning Detroit Free Press, I was thrilled. I had every intention of being a good sport and congratulating McCain if he had won, but I was certainly glad I did not have to fake a smile.
There has been much in the paper in the post-election media blitz about the amazing, almost unbelievable, accomplishment of Senator Obama. The first African American president, son of a single, working-class mom, who worked his way up the political food chain before the age of fifty. Photographs of African Americans dancing in the streets of downtown Detroit until the wee hours of the morning after the official results were in dominated the paper. Much was made of Obama’s inspirational candidacy and victory, especially in terms of how he will inspire black children and serve as the ultimate role model.
As I was writing my congratulations on the board, I thought of my first group of students – about seventy five black children in the poverty-stricken Mississippi Delta. When President George W. Bush won his first term, sixth grader Charles came in crying, worried that the new President “was going to take away [his] check.” The next eight years did not supply much hope for Charles or his classmates in the way of opportunity or reassurance that someone would give them a chance. My students did not have much hope for themselves, no matter how many times I told them that hard work would benefit them in the long run. Despite the seemingly insurmountable challenges they faced, especially in the era of Bush the Second, a handful of them are now enrolled at Mississippi State University; I would love to be able to celebrate this victory with them. Obama will likely give their peers and younger kids still enrolled at Threadgill Elementary more tangible hope, hope that is much more meaningful and realistic.
Eight years later, I am teaching in a classroom that is the polar opposite of my first one: predominantly white, save a few Asian students. Fully-loaded SUVs line the parking lot every morning and kids report on weekend trips to apple orchards and skiing vacations. I spend so much time reading children’s literature and working out math problems in preparation for lessons that it is hard for me to leave my teacher mode; I still almost automatically think of situations through the eyes of one of my second graders. When they saw the newspaper hanging from the chalkboard, I do not think they necessarily thought of President-elect Obama as being black, but rather as the future President of the United States. I think that is the most important feature of this election – that Barack is not only a black man who will be President; he is a hard-working, charismatic, well-spoken man with ideals and values in line with the American philosophy. It will be normal for my little guys to see him represent them.
Not seeing color is ridiculous, as Stephen Colbert, the fake news anchor extraordinaire, jokes about frequently. The comments are as ridiculous as he means them to be. It is not that I don’t want my kids to acknowledge that Barack Obama is black, but rather to acknowledge him first as their President, and realize secondly that he happens to be black. I want them to see the First Daughters playing with their puppy on the South Lawn and recognize that the girls are not too much different from them. They will obviously see his color, but I don’t believe it will play a major role in the opinion they later form of him and his politics. Eight-year-olds, white or black, will probably concern themselves more with the dog’s breed than the girls’ skin color.
The historical significance of Obama’s achievement will be learned in high school history classes, when students are forced to memorize the date Obama was elected and possibly have a vacation day on his birthday. Maybe that is when they will think back to second grade and realize that the newspaper hanging on the board was not just a note of congratulations but instead my best effort to help them see how remarkable it was way back then to witness an African American first turn a dozen or so states purple, and finally swing them toward true blue on election day.
The very red suburban community in which I teach has never held diversity as one of its greatest values. Republican campaign signs were almost as common as jack-o-lanterns a week ago. I first assumed this was due more to fiscal conservatism, and some religious conservatism, but I think there was some racism involved, too. A colleague’s playing The Jeffersons’ theme song in the teacher’s workroom and calling it the new National Anthem lost all comedic value when it was followed by the comment, “Well, I hope they are happy now and stop complaining about racism.” I understand that some of the adults I work with have much further to go in changing their worldview than do my students. Their ignorance is rooted not only in racism, but also fear: fear that the ease with which my coworkers and I have been able to capitalize on the opportunities handed to us might not be so easy for their kids to come by, as if an Obama presidency threatens their sense of entitlement to the tools and outcomes of success. Obama will not take away this opportunity from the middle and upper classes, but he will make sure that children from all races and walks of life will have the best shot at those resources. But in the grip of this irrational fear, they might conclude that the world is not designed for their children’s eminent success. That would be scary for any parent until they realize that more opportunity does not have to come at the expense of the privileged, but that the privileged might have to work harder, too.
The refreshing discovery is that my students do not and will not feel this imaginary fear. They will be diligent in their studies, maximize their talents, and accomplish great things alongside kids who were inspired by Obama to overcome poverty or racism or a poor educational foundation. A typical black family will be the one at the White House, doing ordinary family things. My students are the future leaders of our country, with the potential of growing up with a more sensible view of race than that of their parents’ generation. In one election cycle, Americans may have helped deter the spread of racism.
This political victory is historically – and emotionally – significant for the African American community. I cannot fathom what it must be like, after decades of elementary school teachers telling kids only half-heartedly that they can dream big, to actually see the sky light up with hope. Obama has not walked an easy road; teachers like me can now point in complete sincerity to the photo of the forty-fourth president and honestly tell my students that no matter what road they take, as the Obama campaign mantra suggests, they all can.
The newspaper still hangs from the chalkboard right between the map of the United States and the daily rotation schedule. I will probably replace it with a photo from the Inauguration, and possibly hang up a picture of the newly elected President next to the flag. Every time they stand to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, they will see their President and be reminded that everyone can, and with determination, we will.