I’m going to miss Barack and Michelle.
It’s not that I agreed with every policy decision President Obama made. It’s more the way he and Michelle carried themselves. They were boring in the best sense of the word. People would laugh at you if you told them that Barack was having an affair. It’s simply not plausible. Michelle is a picture of health: in body, mind and spirit. And so, by the way, are Malia and Sasha.
But it’s more than that. I have always gotten the feeling that if I were invited over to the White House for dinner, the Obamas would enter the situation expecting that I would like them and that they would like me.
In an interview with Ta’Nehisi Coates, Obama said, “I had, as a child, seen at least a small cross-section of white people, but the people who were closest to me loved me more than anything. And so even as an adult, even by the time I’m 40, 45, 50, that set of memories meant that if I walked into a room and it’s a bunch of white farmers, trade unionists, middle-age — I’m not walking in thinking, ‘Man, I’ve got to show them that I’m normal.’
“I walk in there, I think, with a set of assumptions: like, these people look just like my grandparents. And I see the same Jell-O mold that my grandmother served, and they’ve got the same, you know, little stuff on their mantelpieces. And so I am maybe disarming them by just assuming that we’re OK.”
Childhood memories are powerful. They create lenses that either distort or clarify what we see as we travel along the road of life.
There has recently been a fair amount of grousing and handwringing about the test scores in our schools in Forest Park. Last month the Review reported that 23.3% of D91 students met or exceeded the PARCC exam standards compared to the state of Illinois’ 33%. That’s a concern, of course, but that’s not why I am comparing our students to the outgoing president.
Academic achievement is important to the future success of our children, but what the Forest Park’s school system excels at, to my observation, is what you might call diversity competence. In this globalized, increasingly diversified world, our kids will need to have the skills to navigate through racial/cultural seas for which there are no maps. They’ll need to have had positive, if not loving, experiences with other kids and adults who don’t look like them.
I think our students in D91 are getting the kind of education that doesn’t show up on the PARCC exam. For example, do you remember when a racial slur was directed at one of the middle school’s sports teams? Christine Haase, a Spanish teacher and coach, filled in the details: “The softball players had a meeting Friday morning as soon as school began with members of staff and administration, which included myself. We discussed what had happened, what our students did right (keeping calm, walking away, not getting baited into acting inappropriately), and what we learned from this experience.
“Later than day, we had another away game with a different team in an adjacent suburb. The Panthers had an extremely positive experience against LaGrange Park, and the boys kept telling me how the other team was ‘really cool’ and how they ‘like them a lot.’ The reason I’m sharing this with you is because for me, this was a huge deal. It showed me that we did actually have a teachable moment earlier that morning. They didn’t go into that game with hate or anger based on one bad experience with one student from LaGrange or think that LaGrange Park would be the same as LaGrange. Our boys didn’t overgeneralize, and they went in with an open mind, ready to play ball. I’m very proud of how they all handled themselves throughout this ordeal.”
Like Pres. Obama, our kids at the middle school are getting a lot of good memories, good experiences of how they have much in common with kids who all look different — on their own team and on other teams. And when the bad experiences come their way, they have adults who can say “that’s life sometimes” on the one hand and on the other hand show them how to not let ignorant people get you down and how to grow more mature from the experience.
None of us sees life 20/20. We all view what happens to us through lenses formed by our memories, good or bad. Pres. Obama grew up as a mixed-race kid with white grandparents who loved him, and in Hawaii where being mixed race is almost the norm. The lenses through which he views life, therefore, focuses on the good that is possible, not the bad that happened in the past.
“What I’m arguing,” Obama said, “is not that the concerns or suspicions or fears around changing demographics and increased diversity aren’t right there on the surface for a lot of voters. They are. But what I’m saying is that they are shaped and influenced depending on what they see day to day. And they are more malleable, and they can go in a better direction or a worse direction.”
Our kids in D91 are collecting memories which will allow them as adults to approach people who look different with an open mind, not judging the book by its cover but understanding that you have to read a few chapters before forming an opinion about whether or not it’s worth reading to the end. And that is worth as much or more as scoring well on a test.