Monday, November 3, 2008

Hope and Fear

There is a buzz of excitement in my classroom these past few days. You can imagine why. We are talking elections left and right. My kids are fuzzy on many of the details, but they seem to be quite clear on who they want to be president. (They also don't seem too fond of the Republican party. I guess they've been brought up in households like mine...)

There have been LOTS of questions. "Why can't we vote?" (Because you're not old and wise enough.) "What happens when you go to vote?" (I acted out the process.) "What if someone gets there before you and says they are you and gives your address and votes for you?" (I wasn't really sure on this one.) "What if you change your mind after you vote? Can you go back and change it?" (Nope.)

There were many, many questions about the fairness of voting, and cheating, and things going wrong at the polls. Yep, we're all worried about that.

"If Obama wins, will they still call it the White House?" This was asked seriously, not as a joke. Which made me think about all the kids of color around the country, thinking that the White House is so named because only white people can be president.

This one took my breath away:

"My cousin says that if Barack Obama wins, he'll be shot."

This was quickly followed by another student chiming in: "Because some white people don't think a black person should be president."

I sat quietly for a minute, thinking. The best I could do was: "Yes, some white people don't think a black person should be president. There are millions of white people who are going to vote for Barack Obama tomorrow, who think it is good and wonderful if a black person is president, but there are also some white people who don't think it's okay. And there are a lot of people whose job it is to keep Barack Obama and his family safe, and they are working very hard to keep them safe all the time."

Another student mentioned the two men recently arrested for plotting to kill Obama, and again I pointed out that the people keeping Obama safe are doing such a good job that they caught those men and arrested them before they could hurt him.

But the next comment was about Dr. King, and how he had been shot. Of course, it comes back to him. I thought of an editorial I read recently by James Carroll, who wrote about the assassinations of King and Bobby Kennedy:

"We knew that, if ever gripped by passionate hope again, we would see it snatched away unrealized, although we could not bring ourselves to say by what. And why shouldn't we, right then, have stopped being young? One of the joys of the current season is to see a fresh generation respond to the promise of Obama without reflexes of worry. Young people have a right to uncomplicated hope, and Obama is himself young enough to nurture it."

But no. Even 40 years later, Dr. King's death is part of the collective memory of children who are only six or seven years old. His story, mixed with their families' experiences of racism and alienation, make them afraid that if Obama wins, he won't live long.

This thought sobered me all day, and continues to weigh on my mind. The consolation I have found is in their discussion of the freedom fighters they have learned about in our school. Besides Dr. King, today we talked about Rosa Parks and Cesar Chavez. They are well-versed in their histories, and in marches, boycotts, and strikes. They remember our conversations about these leaders from last year, and the way that people who were poor rose up to fight, and became leaders of powerful movements. These things are also part of their collective memories, and will stay with them.

And maybe, maybe, maybe, their ideas about who can be president will be changed tomorrow, and Barack Obama will die in a long time, of old age, and a little bit of their fears will be erased.

A last question: someone asked, "Was Barack Obama alive when Dr. King died?" I said yes, he was, and tonight I did a little research. It turns out that Obama was 7 when Dr. King died, which is exactly the age of my students. Maybe Obama is going to be a little too busy, but I think we should write him some letters about all of these questions.


  1. Poignant post. Thanks. Fingers & toes crossed.... :o)

  2. this was a fabulous post. i think you should write soon because a lot of kids have a lot of hope now and will probably be writing too.