January 21, 2013
I have been glued to the television since 7:30 a.m., switching channels and trying to absorb as much as I possibly can of the second inauguration of President Obama. There have been 12 presidents in my lifetime: I don’t remember Roosevelt, was vaguely aware of Truman, then much more aware of Eisenhower, who captivated me with his handsome uniform. I wasn’t old enough to vote in 1960 for Kennedy, though I worked for him on my college campus; this was the first election to which I was completely devoted. And I have tried to observe every inauguration since then, even when I had worked actively against the person being inaugurated. There’s something about the peaceful change of power that marks the very best of America, and it is something I honor, not least because of the lessons it teaches all of us.
This year, while the official inauguration oath took place on January 20, a Sunday, the inauguration ceremonies all occurred on January 21, Martin Luther King Day. I have celebrated this day since 1986 (though it was not recognized in all 50 states until 2000) and have been committed to King since much earlier: as a teenager living in the deep south, I followed his crusade, supported his cause, and grieved his death. I think it’s fair to say that King’s values have influenced me more than those of any other 20th century figure; I’ve learned so very much about the terrible pitfalls as well as the potential of this country—and about myself and my own biases and blindnesses.
I love it that we now have a National Day of Service and that millions of us turn out on that day (as well as on many other days) to plant trees, clean up streams, distribute food, and otherwise try to help others. That’s something that carries on King’s legacy as well as the legacy of many of our Presidents, including President Obama. When I think about “service” in general, I always think about teachers. In my view, teachers provide a special kind of service, service that aims to reach every child, adolescent, and adult through education, service that rarely calls attention to itself, service that should be free and available to all. And I’m thinking here not only of “official” teachers but of all those teachers at work in more informal ways. I think of my own teachers—all those “official” teachers who helped me make my way through school but so many others, from my Grandmother, Rosa May Iowa Brewer Cunningham, who proudly graduated from the 8th grade in her Quaker community and who taught me lessons of commitment, courage, and what she would have called “sticktoitiveness”—to the many, many others from whom I have learned (including, today, the President and Vice President and their fabulous wives).
So today, Inauguration Day and Martin Luther King Day, 2013, I pause to remember and honor teachers everywhere. I am watching all the pageantry–the inaugural ceremony itself, the fancy luncheon, the inaugural parade, later on the inaugural balls—and thinking of how much teaching is going on today, and how much teaching needs to go on after this day is over.