I promise, after this, I’ll write a few short, pithy, light-hearted posts. But this one, I must do now, for the obvious reasons.
I believe in civility, and I believe in civic engagement, so usually I try to encourage public participation in our democracy no matter which side of the aisle your guy may be on. But I confess, as we get close to election day, I am feeling a pit of anxiety opening in my stomach. My family is political on every level, from town referenda to Presidential primaries, and I always feel the stakes are high. But this time, I really mean it.
We went to an Obama rally in Concord, NH today, and stood in line for 3 hours to stand in the press of a crowd 300 yards distant from the occasionally visible President. 14,000 other people and our kids were with us. They were also with us on a freezing day in Washington D.C. four years ago when we stood with millions of other people to watch this same President sworn in. Simon, our second son, was still in utero, and Malcolm, running a fever, was mostly confined to his snowsuit and blanket draped stroller. The crowd in Concord today was different from that inauguration day not just because it was a bunch of reserved, mostly middle-aged New Englanders who prefer dignified (though firm) clapping to indecorous hooting and shrieking. It’s different because this President’s been up to his elbows in work for four years now, and with our firm clapping and firm set jaws, we’d like to see him through.
I don’t generally get weepy or maudlin. I do not cry at weddings, and I do not watch chick flicks. But today, listening to the President talk about teachers, and about opportunity for every kid, I found myself with an unexpected catch in my throat. So much so that I had to give up indecorous hooting and merely clap. Because here’s why I’m a Democrat: I’m a smart and talented person. But that is not nearly enough to make it. I am now what some might derisively call “an East Coast elite.” But it was not always so. My family generally had what we needed growing up, but not all the stuff we wanted. My mom went to nursing school at Northern Essex Community College with 4 kids at home. I did a lot of babysitting. We shared some tiny bedrooms. I went to public school up through eighth grade, and was pushed and challenged by Mr. Rogers, and Mr. Miller, and Mr. Doran, who gave me extra time, and special assignments and good books and told me about the existence of prep school, and that I should go there. So I did. And so I kept company with the elites for four years. I won’t say some of my best friends are hedge fund managers, but many of my acquaintances are. I didn’t appreciate how hard my parents worked to be able to afford Exeter until, clutching a fistful of acceptance letters from some of the very best private colleges, I listened to my father tell me I couldn’t go. We couldn’t afford it. And so I went to UMass instead. My wild, sprawling, chaotic and wonderful state school out in the Valley. We could afford it. We could afford it because Massachusetts invested in it on my behalf. We could afford it because what wasn’t subsidized by my state, I could loan out from my country.
And then, with my four years done, and my diploma in hand, I went to veterinary school at another East Coast Elite institution: Tufts. But for a Massachusetts kid, that too was subsidized by the state. So heavily, in fact, that when the state hit tough times, and the subsidy was wavering, I contemplated what I would do after I had to withdraw from school. But the state came through every time, and I got that degree too. All the things I’ve accomplished may be my own, but the chances given to me were the gifts of a faithful and optimistic government.
Now, I teach at North Shore Community College in Danvers, Massachusetts. My students are moms in night classes, Iraq war vets on the G.I. bill, immigrants on Pell grants, and 25 year olds who can stay in school now because Obamacare lets them stay on their parents’ insurance for another year. This is where I want to be. This is what I want to do with my degrees. I won’t ever get rich off it, and it probably won’t ever pay off my own student loans. But I am no victim, and neither are my students. We are the next in line of long generations who wedged a foot in the door of this country and waited for their children to pry it open a little wider. There’s more than a little light getting through the space we’ve made in that doorway now, and I bring my boys, my exhausted, cold, hungry, good boys, to these events even if they’ll never remember it. Because I need to show them what I believe. That we are none of us able to to open that door all the way in one try, in one generation. But we’re nearly there now, and I want them to look behind when they go striding through, and remember to grasp the hand of the stranger running to catch up. Born Americans, but bred Democrats.