I am interrupting my mini-autobiography today to address the major events of this past weekend. My post today is about how important it is to find one’s voice, and then to use it appropriately when necessary. The millions of people who spoke up by showing up this past weekend at marches in the US and around the world have sent a message. Perhaps their message is even stronger because until now their voices have remained silent. It is as though the inauguration of the new president and the change he represents threw a switch inside them causing them to act. His voice has struck fear in many hearts and minds around the globe.
Our former president had a very different voice, one that he spent his life developing with great intention. Listening to President Obama’s voice as he gave his last press conference before he left the White House, led me to ponder, once again, the power of voice. As usual, he was measured, thoughtful, articulate, and provided a context for most of his responses to questions asked of him. His has been, for better or worse, the voice of reason during the past calamitous eight years. When I hear his voice, no matter how bad things seem, I feel calmer knowing there is a grownup at the wheel.
Where did his voice come from? President Obama spent decades, since a teenager, developing his voice, mostly without the help of others. He attributes much of his growth as a person to the vast amount of reading he has done (and continues to do) which, by his own description, has helped to inform his view of the world and to integrate the different parts of his psyche.
Last Friday, seven days before his departure from the White House, Mr. Obama talked about the indispensable role that books have played during his presidency and throughout his life — from his peripatetic and sometimes lonely boyhood, when ‘these worlds that were portable’ provided companionship, to his youth when they helped him to figure out who he was, what he thought and what was important.”
Michiko Kakutani, Critic’s Notebook
Throughout his life, Obama read (and still reads) countless stories in search of the right words to tell his own story. And what a story it is! No one could fail to be impressed that this young black boy, born in Hawaii, who moved with his mother to Indonesia, then back to Hawaii and eventually on his own to Chicago and an unparalleled life in politics, did this without the support of a father (who left him at a very young age), but with the guidance of a mother who was fascinated by other cultures and grandparents who gently raised him without prejudice. Honing his ideas over the decades through vigorous reading and writing has resulted in a voice that is uniquely his, articulate and eloquent.
I distinctly remember the day he was elected President because when I entered my school building there was no sign that the day was different from any other day. In fact, the halls were unusually silent. I realized that my worst fears were true; almost no one in my school had voted for Obama. I spent the day in my ESL room, quietly celebrating with my diverse groups of immigrant students who, in contrast, were very giddy and excited that someone who looked more like them was now the President of the United States. I was so proud of my country that day for “going high” as Michelle Obama would say, and voting for our first black president.
I wonder what schools will be like after January 20th. Will there be jubilation in my former (I am retired) school at the installment of Trump as our new President? How will all the immigrants students feel knowing that there is a president who would never have allowed their entry into this country if he had a say in the decision; who is focused on building a wall so Central and South Americans can no longer trickle across the border; who openly despises Muslims? Who will help them shape their stories? What will happen to their voices?
I had a club for over ten years called Kids Around the World which I devoted to the celebration of all cultures. To celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, I brought in a Mom to teach step-dancing. On Chinese New Year we celebrated by tasting Chinese food and learning how to write and say the numbers 1to 10 in Chinese. On Hanukah a volunteer Mom made latkes for the children who played the dreidl game together and loved it. To celebrate the end of Ramadan, one of my Middle Eastern students brought in “sweets” from Pakistan to share, along with a sample of a prayer rug and the special clothing she wore on high holy days. The members were a mixture of American-born and immigrant children, and they knew the club was a safe place to hear the “voices” of their peers sharing occasions that are dear to them.
Probably the only thing I really miss about my former job are those children because I learned so much about the world from them, from their voices. And I will miss President Obama for the same reason. But now there are new voices to listen to. The men, women and families who showed up for the marches have sent a message to our new president: They will not tolerate, hate, fear-mongering or divisiveness in our country. They have found their voices and by showing up and marching, insisted they be heard. Let’s hope they continue to do so.