I became loosely aware of politics in the third grade. President Johnson came to our church. And another time his vice president, Hubert Humphrey, came. I stepped forward to say good morning and that moment stands still in a newspaper clipping. Dr. King had given his “I have a dream” speech, and Betty Freidan wrote The Feminine Mystique that year. These were people asking questions about how to make the world a place that was fair for everybody. Yet none of these people was mentioned in school. This didn’t surprise me. School had nothing to do with the real world; my elementary school was not the school of “what’s happening now.” My school was stuck in another time with its own language: cloakroom, wraps, galoshes, lavatories.
While the sixties raged in a blur outside my classroom window, we sang songs about happy wanderers, kookaburras, and that song about Dixie. I could never figure out who Dixie was, where she was, or why she should look away. When I asked my mom who Dixie Land was she laughed and shook her head. My mother did nothing to clear up the mysteries of school, an oppressively close place that smelled like a mix of floor wax, lavatory soap, the incinerator, and hot rolls.
My friends wanted to be teachers. Not me. Why would anyone want to go to a school if they didn’t have to? Third grade was simply a waiting room for the life that was waiting for me at home—a life of books, imagination, ideas, siblings, and endless time outside with the York River behind our house and a vast field in front of it.
My teacher told me that although I needed to concentrate on “collecting my belongings,” I was a good citizen. Citizen. Finally. Here was a relevant word that was used with reverence both at home and at school.
I was raised in a patriotic household. My father was making the world a better place though diplomacy and my mother helped him do it. And so did the four of us. We were clear on that. When “we” were assigned to the American Embassy in Cairo, I knew that I was expected to represent my country as a good citizen. Under date trees, bands played patriotic songs at embassy Fourth of July parties and I was glad to be a part of a bigness of something I could not name or even fully understand.
Later, I knew that my life’s work would be part of this bigness. As we continued to move from place to place, I wondered what that work might be. School became more relevant and enjoyable, but never did I think I would spend my life in a school. And yet…
I am a teacher. I teach my third graders that to be good citizens we must be kind, fair, and responsible; that we must include others and respect the rights of all; and that as thoughtful readers and writers, we can make a difference. Every day when we sit in a circle on the carpet, I remind my students to widen the circle to make sure that everyone will fit. I am teaching them about the bigness that I felt in the air when I was a third grader myself…it is called Democracy.
In every election I teach about the candidates as fairly and impartially as I can. I highlight that which is kind, fair, and responsible about each one. That was harder to do this year. I did not want my children to remember me as silent when a presidential candidate held a broad brush of insult toward women or religious groups. Children saw snippets of news wherever they went. They were confused by what they heard. I was not silent.
After processing the election, I have reminded my students that the presidency is worthy of our respect, no matter who is in office. Democracy is a beautiful ideal and it works.
I met Hubert Humphrey at church at just their age. I met justice, grace, mercy, and lovingkindness there too. As a woman of faith and as an Episcopalian, I continue to learn about these things so I might live them in the world. Every time someone is baptized, the priest asks this question, and I am reminded of my job description:
Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
Respect the dignity of every human being. All people. Every human being. Every student. Every parent. Every candidate. Every voter.
Last week a young man came to see me. He was one of my former students. He stopped by to let me know that he was in college and that he had just voted in his first election. He said he knew I would want to know.
He was right. And he was kind, fair, and responsible.