On Being a Good Citizen

As Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton makes clear, the founding fathers were a fractious bunch. They cast aspersions and slung mud almost as well as they drafted the lofty language of the Declaration and the Constitution.

They had conflicting ideas about how to achieve this American dream, but shared a common goal. For far too long ‘life, liberty and pursuit of happiness” was denied to African slaves and women, but fitfully we expanded the promise. Sometimes at dreadful cost – think Gettysburg or Selma – but more often at the ballot box.aaron-burr-musical

In American history we study compromises. The Connecticut compromise that led to a House of Representatives and a Senate. The Missouri Compromise that both limited, but expanded slavery. Don’t ask, Don’t tell. We often disagree, but we find respectful ways to do so and forge ahead.

At ICS we have ambitious academic goals for the children. We use big words, and discuss big ideas like compromise and constitution. As early as Kindergarten. But as our parents read in the stairwell every day ‘knowledge without wisdom is like water in the sand.”

Part of that wisdom comes from a socio-emotional curriculum that builds our students’ sense of empathy. Their capacity to appreciate differences, respect one another, and care. To understand that their own success is inextricably linked to that of their community, and that the broader goals are more important than whether they ‘win’ or ‘lose’ on any given day.

In 2004 I volunteered in Pennsylvania to get out the vote for John Kerry’s presidential campaign. Kerry won more votes than any Democrat had previously in West Chester, but he lost the election.NJ

Driving back to New York on election night, listening to the results was hard. At times I felt a pain in my chest – not a heart attack but a physical pressure.

But I showed up for work the next day and accepted that George W. Bush would continue to be my President.

My college classmate Matt Weiss teaches history in Pittsburgh, and wrote recently that his thoughts had turned to Al Gore. Who lost the 2000 election to Bush:

Back in 2000, Al Gore had reason to believe he was robbed. He’d won the popular vote by a half-million. The election in Florida, where he lost by 537 votes out of about 20 million, was rife with irregularities, faulty ballots and voter-roll purges. The Supreme Court stopped a recount that may have given him the presidency.

But Al Gore did not yell, “Rigged!” He did not talk about “second amendment solutions.” He did not say the system was fixed. He did the opposite. He stepped aside and supported the new president.

As Vice President, Gore was president of the Senate. In an ending worthy of a Greek tragedy, he was required to certify the votes of the Electoral College in January 2001.

There was a lot of anger in the House, where the votes were counted. Gore’s Democratic colleagues rose to protest the election. In a stinging irony, many of them addressed Gore as “Mr. President,” his constitutional role.

Gore’s job was to gavel them into silence, which he did. In the end, he certified the result that broke his heart, ended his political career, and which he had to feel, on some level, was unfair.

The sprinters Tommie Smith,John Carlos and Peter Norman during the award ceremony of the 200 m race at the Mexican Olympic games. During the awards ceremony, Smith and Carlos protested against racial discrimination: they went barefoot on the podium and listened to their anthem bowing their heads and raising a fist with a black glove. Mexico City, Mexico, 1968He joked about it for years afterward, sometimes introducing himself as the “former next-president of the United States.” But Gore kept any bitterness, doubts or recriminations to himself.

That, fellow citizens, is patriotism. That is putting country first. Not some sticker on your truck. Not standing up for some song and shouting at anybody who won’t. Al Gore went to Vietnam when he abhorred the war because he knew that, as a Senator’s son, if he found some “fancy way of avoiding the war,” as his roommate, Tommy Lee Jones recalled “someone else would have to go in his place.”

Al Gore is too often a punchline. He was a terrible candidate and he can be a stultifying speaker, but he is a patriot of the truest kind.

John Kerry was another privileged man who volunteered for Vietnam. Where he was wounded, three times. His experiences led him to become a vocal protester against the war, a position for which he was vilified. Like Gore he was a weak candidate and a less than inspiring speaker. Like Gore he is a patriot. Both for his service and his protest.

Ellen and the teachers talk to the kids about how fair is not the same as equal, about taking turns, listening and sharing. In the hopes that, years from now, when the chips are down and the results are not what they hoped for, our students will have the emotional capacity and depth of character to persevere. To both respect the system, and think productively how they will change conditions and make a different outcome possible.

Every child at ICS has the equal chance to inherit the mantle of patriotism worn by Americans like Washington, Lincoln, Susan Anthony, King, George H.W. Bush, Sandra Day O’Connor, Tommie Smith, Kerry, Gore and Lin Manuel-Miranda. And continue to work of perfecting our far too imperfect democracy.

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