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Barbara Bornet Stumph: Inauguration of Obama ... What Can We Tell Our Children?

[Barbara Bornet Stumph is an English Language Development and Ancient World History Teacher and Teacher/Researcher with the Bay Area Writing Project (sponsored by University of California at Berkeley), who retired from Mt. Diablo Unified School District. She graduated from the University of Oregon in Asian Studies , Mandarin Chinese, and California State University at Hayward with a Masters in Curriculum Education.]

As Barrack Obama gave his Inauguration Address, I thought to myself, “What shall I tell my children and grandchildren about this moment in American history?”  As a sixty-three year old teacher of  English Language Development and Ancient World History, how can I apply my lifetime of work with immigrants and children of all races in the public schools in California to help my children focus on the American dream? 

Every American teacher takes some measure of pride in Obama’s success, I must confess.  We, who have given thousands of children guidance on respecting others, are proud of the international background and academic success of our new President.  Having just returned from the East West Center International Association meeting in Bali, Indonesia two months ago, I can report how Obama’s name is on the lips of everyone we met there.  My own major of Mandarin Chinese studies at the East West Center gives me something in common with Obama’s mother, Stanley Ann Dunham,  as both of us were on the University of Hawaii campus at the same time.

The image of Obama’s mother awakening him every day at four-thirty to teach him English, while they lived in Indonesia, is powerfully described in his memoir, Dreams of My Father.  Her dedication was laudable.

Now we face difficult times.  My adult children are bombarded by negativity in the media.  I need to write something which may restore what the Chinese call a sense of harmony and balance to the task we face in raising our seven grandchildren.

 I ask myself, what can I say to remind myself and my family of the very fiber of America that led to President Obama’s leadership in the Oval Office?

I rush to my computer, as Washington D.C. audiences of thousands cheer Mr. Obama this icy morning around the reflection pool.   I begin my own reflection.  Here is a letter to my family which I hope they will keep long after I am gone:

January 20, 2009,  Inauguration Day

My Dearest Children and Grandchildren:

Today, we witness the Inauguration of President Barack Obama.  Our new President stood with dignity before the world.  He reminded Americans when darkness pressed on our ancestors, they did not falter.  They sacrificed to give us the land and a better life--our mutual inheritance.

When President George W. Bush said he views his title of “citizen Bush” above all others, I am inclined to remind you of your own title, so you can pass on to children what is expected of  American citizens.

So we must ask, “What does being a citizen of our great nation America mean?”

How do we fulfill the duties of our title, citizen?

Begin by teaching our children the Pledge of Allegiance.

Our duty is to vote.  To study the issues.  Be a participant, not a watcher.   My husband and I gave money to the candidate of our choice twice in this past campaign.   

Participation takes many other forms.  Treat our fellow citizens with respect.  As you know, I spent twenty-three years teaching students from two-dozen countries, as well as multi-racial Americans, to respect one another in our public schools;  I taught students about distant lands, like Athens, Samarkand, and Chang-An, so they would learn every nation has a rich history deserving of attention.

In school, I took four years of Latin; at the East West Center I tackled Mandarin, so that I am able to talk with people from the other side of the world.  I sought to learn where our ancestors’ ideas originated and about other ancient cultures.  I continue to study ancient Chinese philosophy, just as our family members delved into engineering,  history, economics, education, fine arts, communications, and other studies.

I would ask you today to pass on to our children love for our nation.  Teach children patriotic songs; play marches; take them to July 4 Independence Day parades.  Let them hear our leaders when they speak.

We are expected to stand tall, when needed, like those people we love, who served in the Navy and Army.  Visit Gettysburg and begin one day to visit the Korean, Vietnam War Memorials, and others.  See sunken ships at Pearl Harbor; the Trade Towers; then go abroad to Dachau, Germany.  Light candles for the fallen on Memorial Day. 

“I pledge allegiance to the flag….”  Display our flag.  Do not show our flag to reinforce narrow nationalism, but hang our stars and stripes in memory of your grandfathers, father, stepfather, uncles, and others, as well as the strong women relatives, who supported them, when they put on the uniform and served in American military services.  Maybe one day one of our seven grandchildren may choose to serve in the Public Health Service, for example.   Our people have paid in blood for our Liberty and framed our freedom in our Constitution.

Discuss with children the meaning of Thomas Jefferson’s words in the Declaration: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…. with certain inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”   Take our children to churches so they will know the Judeo-Christian values upon which our moral and ethical system arises, as we also impart our cherished separation of church and State. 

 Among these American values is the importance of diversity in democracy;  fairness;  kindness.  Addressing American diversity, our first African American President, Barrack Obama, said in his Inaugural Address today :

“For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.”

Teach children to respect the laws of the Nation: to wait for the green light even when no one sees them cross the street; to support law enforcement if they witness a crime; to stand up to bullies.  Teach them to write to Congress in support or criticism of worthy causes.  We have our leaders’ web sites bookmarked.

Teach our children about the power of service. On my side of the family, my Mother for example, relinquished thousands of dollars in possible salary in adult life to give service in the Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, and her local and state hospital auxiliary for the benefit of the poor and elderly in three different States.  My Father, a professional American historian, author, and international relations expert, researches, writes, and speaks on presidential history into his nineties, revealing his love of our nation.

Let children participate beyond their home in strengthening the warp and weft of our communities.  President Obama has asked his campaigners to volunteer in food banks across America.  Health care reform is high on his agenda. 

As citizens of the United States, we must give back to societies who need assistance.  Support those who work in the field, like the International Red Cross and the Peace Corps, just as your Aunt has done.  She, too, is teaching immigrants, thus continuing her commitment to helping those less fortunate.

Our children use modern communication tools in their education; they are also developing a love of libraries of books, which will serve to help them sort fact from fiction in science and letters, experts from shysters.  Let children read historical voices of Abigail Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Abraham Lincoln.  Only then will they grow to be informed about what our framers dreamed for future citizens.

Help preserve our environment.  Be careful with water every time we take a drink.  Use all our resources wisely.  Your step-father spent his professional career in the Environmental Protection Agency, where he worked on clean air and water.  As we hike in State and National Parks open space, ponder those who set aside this land for us, build the quail habitat, and keep skies blue for generations to follow.

Let our fine arts make jaded eyes of citizens see the world anew so that our nation lives in celebration of beauty.  Fight to preserve the arts.   Let our children play piano, dance, paint, and write, so our human fear of separateness dissolves.  Let my paintings and writing speak of joyful moments.  Our ancestors gave us this land where we have the safety, time, and opportunity to be an artist or, indeed, any other occupation where our passions lead.  As a Chinese saying goes, “Life is short; art is long.”

Let our children learn the difference between scientific thinking based upon hypothesis and verified, empirical evidence, rather than fly-by-night pretenders, quacks, or pyramid schemes.  In our age of information overload, give our future citizens tools to help them distinguish the between different courses of action or to ask experts when they need trusted help.

We are Americans.  Our economy is interwoven with those of all the other nations.  As we serve our earth, we will prune our appetites, save our money, and revisit wise spending habits.

When sorrow enters our homes, when we lose someone we love, or a crisis occurs,  we must all rise up from our devastation to face a new day “with too high a spirit to be encumbered by our old nonsense”, as Emerson said.

Americans believe we can change what is wrong.  Our children also need to learn to listen.  There are times when patience is required.

Let us work for peace in our homes and our neighborhoods, so we can radiate peace beyond our shores.  

Be mindful of our roles as citizens of the world, striving for our common humanity, since our status, as an American, is not a mere birthright, but rather presents a challenge over a lifetime.

Our new President says he needs our help.  Each voting cycle we begin again to fulfill our dream of equality, plurality, and freedom.  The citizenship we inherit is meaningful.

Love,  always,

Your Mother, Stepmother,  and Grandmother