Red, White and Black

A conversation with students who know what Barack Obama has seen and felt.


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All agreed that Barack Obama had embraced that risk—had gone directly after the dream that Dr. King had articulated so poetically. But they also seemed to grasp the limits of power. Amanda Anderson said, “Presidents don’t pull their ideas from nowhere. They have a thought process behind them. They’re getting ideas from people who are educated.”

Yes, education. I looked around the room and thought of these children, all of them bright, many of them coming from families in which ends don’t meet and some where one parent is conspicuously absent. I thought about their dreams.

“What would you like to be?” I asked. The answers were the answers that you might get at middle schools in Greenwich or Avon: pediatrician, marine biologist, architect, orthodontist’s assistant, lawyer, actor, registered nurse, veterinarian, mechanic, poet, anthropologist, mechanical engineer, pro football player, anesthesiologist, musician, teacher, forensic scientist, neurosurgeon, car designer. And one soul, who obviously knows more about the insurance industry’s lure than the rest of us, confided that he wants to become an actuary.

“Interesting,” I said.  “All worthy goals. But not one of you said you’re going to become president of the United States.” They laughed—no, that was still way beyond the dreams of anyone present.

Juwon Wood said the president’s job is a tough one. “He has to make up his mind about one theory or another—now, with the economy being bad and the Iraq war.” Thienly Nguyen said, “Being president is like being the parent for all of America—you’re responsible for everybody.” Jared Delane said, “Everybody’s watching you, waiting for you to mess up.” Others pointed to the tragic record of assassination. They were quite aware of the fate of JFK and Abe Lincoln and even William McKinley. And Fatima Choudhury said, “By taking positions, you put yourself out there.”

“Well,” I said, lowering the sights, “do any of you think you might serve in some public office locally?” Some agreed that they might one day be on something like a school board. Someone asked, “Does that count?” Of course, I replied. “How many of you,” I asked, “are now on the student council?” A half-dozen hands went up. “That counts, too,” I said, and then asked the group if any of them thought there needed to be changes at the school. Again, many hands.

“We need cleaner bathrooms” was a sentiment that had a lot of support around the room. But some had loftier notions. Jodeanne Francis said, “There’s a big gap between good students and bad students. We need to promote higher standards. We need to upgrade laptops, and get new textbooks.”

Well, yes. That’s the way Barack Obama began his road to the White House—seeing what was in front of him, and what needed to be changed, and deciding what to do about it.

I surveyed that room of eager faces. Behind them on the wall were other faces, in photographs. The teacher in displaying the good and the notorious put them all in the same display—Adolf Hitler, Abraham Lincoln, Neil Armstrong, Ho Chi Minh, Mohandas K. Gandhi, Susan B. Anthony—and asked, in big display letters, “What if they met?” A fascinating question, one that makes them confront issues that matter. And it seemed to me that the children in this school were in good hands.

So I gave them another chance to ascend to the presidency. Some smiled, and thought, well, maybe it’s an idea. I said, “Maybe by the time you reach the age of eligibility you will change your minds. Does anybody know what age that is?” Everybody did—35, they said. As Fatima Choudhury pointed out, it is “an age when you’ve seen enough of life to know things.”

As I left Sage Park Middle School that brisk sunny morning, it seemed to me that these students—if we adults are listening—can teach us a thing or two.

Red, White and Black

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