Monday, January 19, 2009

Small America Watches the Inauguration

To everything--turn, turn, turn
There is a season--turn, turn, turn
And a time to every purpose under heaven

The Byrds, "Turn Turn Turn"

On Tuesday morning, 35 students, two teachers and an intern stare in rapt attention at the TV on a cart at the front of Room 120. In newer schools in Seattle, TVs are mounted into the corners in every classroom, providing a convenient space for video announcements and the inevitable class movies. It's been half a century since our school counted as a "newer school," but TVs for all is one of the less bothersome implications of our school's age. I've wired (or, to be honest, found clever kids to wire) my precious media projector to every medium imaginable, running DVD players, VCRs, computers, and document cameras from the box on the ceiling to the big screen in the classroom. On 1,460 out of 1,461 days, the media setup in Room 120 works just fine. But on that last day there is a presidential inauguration.

The teacher next door has brought over the television and his class of ten, which seat themselves easily in the back of my sparse second period. There had been some rebellion when my intern, a teaching student from a nearby university who is just beginning her third week here, got up to start the class. "What?" they cried in alarm. "We're not watching the inauguration? We have to!"

Standing outside in the hall, I'd heard her calmly reassuring the students, who grumbled while they dragged out notebooks, that we would be watching in just a moment, that the real business of swearing-in would not begin for fifteen minutes. They sighed, and began to respond to the oh-so-irrelevant words on the overhead screen, lyrics to a song written ages ago, which even then were stolen from that most archaic of texts, the Bible itself! What, I had asked in the morning, could these words mean to you today? I had intended it to be a reminder that the terrors of finals week were transient, that they did not need to fear the hard work of the next week because, like all seasons, it would not last forever.

I hadn't realized, several days ago when I wrote the lesson, the other significance of the statement. And yet all day I had heard from my students not reflections on their own academic lives--no one even bothered with the stress of projects and papers today--but expressions of hope for the changes in our nation. A great collage of voices, all declaring that this morning was the beginning of a new season, that the turns they saw ahead were for the better.

As the Chief Justice begins the swearing-in of the first African American President of the United States, I sit in the back of a classroom that is a small America, full of voices and histories and ideals that undoubtedly reflect those of our nation. We wait, all 38 of us, as the hand rests on the famous Lincoln Bible, the voice we've begun to recognize repeats words we seldom hear, the oath of this office pledging one man to work in service to the welfare of a nation. Though even the youngest of us have seen the abuses of this office, we are all moved by the depth of the promises our new President is making.

It all goes by so quickly. I wonder if it feels fast to the students, who sit here enraptured by Barack Obama's first words as President; I wonder if they feel the weight of this moment, and wish to savor it as I do. And even as I consider this, I remember that I do not feel it as deeply as others must, that I have not lived long enough, nor seen the breadth of prejudice in our nation, to understand fully the meaning of this day. Still, I hold my breath and listen, longing to hold onto this moment of hope, the morning I was honored to greet a new season with my students.

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