Monday, May 25, 2009
In which we see two assemblies -- and some solitary reflection on a meeting between a senator and a teacher
The Felix Chronicles, #28
An almost eerie silence prevails in the hallway outside Room 211. Though it’s late morning on a school day in January, no one is here; the only sign that anyone is at school at all is the row of untended backpacks are lined up outside lockers. I begin to walk down the hallways to the auditorium, my pace quickening so that I may join my colleagues and students for the history in the making.
I don’t want to miss out this time. On Election Night, I was distracted by a fever that would soon become a cold. I was, moreover, worried about my daughter, who would be having substantial dental work done the next day (which proved to be less fearsome than I expected). I heard the victory speech in a haze, half asleep, but uneasily so, in my bed. So it is that the private and personal trumps the public and collective. All the more reason to savor this day.
But as I pass junior dean’s office and the empty student commons, I remember another day. This was a warm June evening in 2006. I had been in Washington for a meeting, and was waiting in the terminal at Reagan National for the US Air shuttle to take me back to New York. We were delayed because of lighting, and so it was at one point that I looked up to see my U.S. Senator, Chuck Schumer, chatting beside freshman Senator Barack Obama. I overheard talk about a fundraiser in Manhattan. Something about Scarlett Johanssen. I heard someone fret that if we didn’t board soon, there would be no point. Senator Obama mentioned a horrific flight one of his colleagues had made recently.
A few minutes later, I saw Obama standing alone, and pushed aside my reserve and got out of my seat. I walked up to him. “Senator,” I said, “I want to be able to tell my children that I shook your hand,” extending to reach the one he instinctively extended. “I’ve been following you back since the primary,” I said, referring to his unlikely capture, in a crowded field, of the 2004 Democratic nomination for the Illinois Senate seat he went on to win, a triumph that made national headlines even before his celebrated speech at the Democratic National Convention that summer.
“So what are you doing here?” he asked.
“I was at a doing some consulting work at the Smithsonian,” I explained. "National Museum of American History."
“Good, good. And what do you do for a living?”
“I’m a high school history teacher.”
“Even better!” I knew he had used similar, even identical words many times with constituents and starry-eyed strangers like myself. But I appreciated the essential decency of honoring ordinary work, and his ability to convey a sense of warmth.
“Well, anyway, I’ll be cheering for you.”
“Thank you. Thank you very much.”
He left shortly after that, leaving me with a cherished memory, one that fueled a trip to Pennsylvania two years later, where I campaigned on his behalf with a group of faculty and students. The highlight of the trip occurred on a quiet street in black suburb on the border of Philadelphia, when a pair of my seniors separately knocked on the door of a house where a bachlorette party was taking place, and where they were plausibly mistaken for the afternoon's entertainment. (No one was thinking about the content of their character that day.) I smile at the memory now as I ascend the steps to the auditorium. As I do, I hear a brass band. And when I push open the doors, I hear the roar of the school, augmenting that of the crowd at the Mall visible on the gigantic screen in the front of the room, which cuts to the president-elect arriving at the podium. Private wish has become public will. Yes we could; yes we did.