Terror is a wonderful aid to memory.
I mostly loved eighth grade US History. On day one of the class, Mr. LaFordge introduced himself with a clever current events joke, pointing out his name should be easy to remember, since it contained (and after writing it on the board, he underlined) "Ford," the name of our brand new (he'd been sworn in, following Nixon's resignation, just two weeks earlier) President. He then passed out our brand new textbooks, and I had the delightful experience of being the first person to crack mine open, luxuriating in the smell of virgin paper and ink. It was going to be a wonderful year, I thought.
That feeling lasted--in this class, anyway--until we wrapped up the unit on the Revolutionary War, and began learning about the Constitution. The final exam on this unit was to be an oral recitation, from memory, in front of the entire class, of the Preamble. Yes, that's the same text that Oprah Winfrey's character recites at the beginning of Selma, and while my right to vote was not hanging on me knowing every word (or being able to name all the circuit court judges in Alabama), my dignity was very much on the line. For some reason, the thought of memorizing and reciting a text in front of my peers filled me with anxiety. The only other childhood experience I can compare it to is the first time I had to jump off the diving board into the deep end of the pool. As on that fearful swimming lesson day, I woke up the morning of the test with my stomach in a knot, a condition that was not to dissipate until I spoke the final words of the preamble, and was able to return to my seat.
A few months later, the eighth grade revisited this experience, as our Civil War unit included reciting, from memory, the Gettysburg Address. This time my terror was compounded by the fact that Mr. LaFordge apparently reversed the alphabet, so that my turn would come toward the end of the class. For an hour, I sat in my desk, my guts twisting tighter and tighter as, one by one, my classmates faltered through the text. It took them so long, in fact, that the bell rang before my turn, forcing me to wait another day before my own quivering but textually flawless delivery.
Mind you, I always enjoyed reading aloud, and had at this point led litanies and read scripture passages in front of my father's congregation many times. It was the memory part that scared me.
That fear burned the words of those two documents into my brain. I can't recite them word for word anymore, but I complete clauses come to mind at the slightest stimulus. For instance, just this morning I saw this quote by Barack Obama, spoken on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery march for voting rights:
“What greater expression of faith in the American experiment than this, what greater form of patriotism is there than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?”
Reading that, my mind immediately flashed to the concluding words of the Gettysburg Address: "we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
I know it's silly to compare my eighth grade recitation stage fright to the horror of those gathered on the battlefield of Gettysburg to commemorate the deaths of more than 9000 young men, killing each other over the very issue that would, a hundred years later, still be haunting this nation; or of the peaceful, unarmed marchers who, a century after that battle, on cresting the Edmund Pettus Bridge, saw the state troops in riot gear awaiting them on the other side. What strikes me about both those events--and about the occasion of my adolescent butterflies--is the theme of division.
The history of this country has, from its founding, been that of divided elements held together by common ideals. The Continental Congress that launched the Revolution was already divided between North and South, slave and free. The new nation almost tore itself apart in the years immediately after the British surrendered, a struggle postponed in the compromises of the Constitution, the Preamble of which was my first US History hurdle. The primary issue that was the catalyst for the Constitution was federalism, the extent to which American states are sovereign, and it has continued to be at the heart of every other issue dividing Americans to this day. The Civil War was fought over whether Southern states should have the right to practice slavery, and as much as Abraham Lincoln may have dreamed that the Union victory would lead to a new birth of freedom, the defeated South continued to treat African-Americans as subhuman for another century. With the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, the US government again imposed ideals on the South, and as with the abolition of slavery, those rights had to be enforced by federal troops.
Fifty years later, the racial struggle goes on. It is more nuanced, and has broadened to include persons of Hispanic heritage, but the fight has not been won. Other issues have entered the fray--immigration, gender, sexual identity--but federalism continues to be deeply, organically part of each of them. The question remains: to what extent shall the higher ideals of democracy, of expanding human rights to include all people, be imposed upon people and groups of people who find that expansion distasteful, offensive, repellent? Shall businesses be required to serve customers who are different from their preferred clientele? Shall city and county officials be required to provide marriage services to couples who differ from the norm? Shall school districts and universities be required to educate young people who, because of their parents' decision to live and work in the United States without documentation, are not themselves legal residents of this country? State sovereignty is in the background of every one of these arguments.
So, too, is the patriotism defined by Abraham Lincoln and echoed by Barack Obama: the patriotism that sees what this nation can be, but knows it is not there yet; that can imagine it becoming better than it is; that envisions steady progress toward greater and greater freedoms, rights, respect, compassion, and the full embrace of diversity. When I dream of America, this is what my dream looks like. I had hoped it would be the America of my children, but as our President observed, the American experiment is still unfinished.
There are glimmers of hope. The Presbyterian Church (USA) has just decided to remove discriminatory language from its own constitutional documents, and to begin celebrating same-gender marriages. It accomplished this through attrition: those who opposed the change have, after decades of fighting it, voted with their feet, finally moving to other, more conservative, churches. I don't expect that will be the resolution of our national struggles, at least, not in the sense of conservatives leaving America in search of a more bigoted nation; but in a sense, it is happening that way, as new generations are far more accepting of diversity than those who dominate elections and make (or refuse to make) laws or decide on their constitutionality.
Perhaps, then, my grandchildren will one day, after fighting down their own butterflies, be able to recite the most patriotic words of all, the words of this nation seeing a new birth of freedom, and will note just dream of, know for themselves, a government of all the people, by all the people, and for all the people not just surviving, but thriving in these United States of America.