Dreaming with a broken heart

I had the great fortune of watching the inauguration in its entirety with my advanced composition students today. For the most part, they took the event quite seriously, writing excerpts and reactions in their daybooks as our 44th president delivered his inaugural address.

Class began about 36 minutes before the president-elect was to take the official oath, and I seized the moment to pronounce this occasion as, quite possibly, the most significant moment of their lives that is not the result of some catastrophic event. I do believe that at least a few of them grasped the meaning of the moment, and they were the ones who immortalized their experiences in words. I asked them to take care of those entries, for someday, when their own children might ask what they were doing or thinking on this day, they can share their written thoughts as if they were expressed just moments earlier.

I was struck, personally, by the significance of this day, but not for the same reason that some of my students might have been. My own children, ages 12, 7, and 4, will think nothing of the importance of an African-American becoming president of our country, just like I, at their age, could not comprehend what the big deal was to have best friends who were black. When I was 7, it seemed like ancient times when there were actually separate eating and sitting areas for blacks and whites.

Not in my lifetime, I always thought.

And so it will be, thankfully, for my own children and, for the most part, the teenagers that I teach.

But there’s something deeper that I felt, too, as I was preparing my students for the remaining minutes leading up to the swearing-in ceremony. I may not remember what segregation was all about, but I do remember many broken promises by our former presidents and other leaders, both national and local. I’m old enough that I’ve been through seven presidential transitions, where I’ve heard the dreams and the hopes and the prayers of a brighter future, a greater day for America just over the horizon. I’ve heard the stern statements of a stronger, more united nation that will not give in to the tyrants and the terrorists around the world who threaten our own democracy. I’ve welcomed the promises of a stronger economy, better health care, and thriving classrooms. And I’ve believed in the beliefs that this time would be different; this time would be real change; this time would be like no other.

And I thought: why is this new administration any different? Why should I believe just one more time, when my heart has been broken repeatedly, a sorrowful cycle that seemingly knows no end?

The answer is in the eyes of my children, the words of my students, and the voices of my children’s best friends. There is hope because, for this generation, they know nothing else but a life where African-Americans can become presidents and speak of dreams that, in their hearts, are not broken.

Just a few moments ago, my buddy’s son, who is 8, read for me an essay he wrote about the inauguration, and why this day is so important to him. As I listened to his high-pitched, innocent voice recite the reasons why President Obama is both inspiring and better than any president we’ve ever had, I heard something resonate through the words: Belief, filled with hope and with love.

I am 43, soon to be 44, and I am not too young to be surrounded by cynics who believe that this is all smoke and mirrors, that no great change can come so swiftly to our country and our people. But these are the same people who, 30 years ago, believed in peace, and hope, and love. We imagined, along with John Lennon, that anything was possible with love. We believed that, together, we could make a change that would be long-lasting and beneficial for the world. We believed in ourselves and our country. We believed that love and fairness and justice would prevail.

Many of us have had our hearts broken since then. But all it takes is to look into the eyes of our children and see that they, too, have dreams that, with these new promises, peace and love are possible once again. It is this spirit, this belief, this faith that we must embrace, the faith and love from generations young and old, that will give this great nation the chance to realize the dreams of a more peaceful, more confident, and more loving world, where our children’s children will be born wondering what all the fuss was about, so so long ago.

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