... which required trying to build an information bridge between 30 Rosie's Girls -- a park-sponsored group where the youngest was 10 and the eldest, 14 -- and an elderly woman fast-approaching 96 years of age. Challenging? You betcha! I was terrified at the prospect, the fear that I didn't have the ability to bring their generation together with mine in a coherent way in the sharing of the Home Front history. How on earth can one do that? Yet it seemed to work despite the fear.
We gathered at Kennedy High School in a room that probably housed classes in social studies or civics because every available space on the walls was covered with photographs and posters of past national leaders. Images of Presidents Clinton and Obama dominated the room. Our sitting president was not represented on these walls, an interesting observation as noted by one of the cameramen. It would have been interesting to learn whether we'd simply overlooked that image, or, if there were political debates among the students that ended with a conscious decision to allow the omission. Interesting?
After a brief opening statement about my personal history -- based on a conversation in the car while on the way -- we did a Q&A. The girls seemed so woefully young, and unknowing, but open and willing to participate as we gathered in chairs that formed a semi-circle with me in the middle.
By the time I felt fully engaged -- about 30-minutes later -- the lights behind their eyes began to slowly shine on, and the room started to come alive for me.
The conversation at times felt far afield from where I thought we should be going, but by the end my feelings of awkwardness had all but vanished, and when our director, Carl, stepped in to remind me that the spread of history that lay between my great-grandmother, Leontine Breaux Allen, and me, might be of interest to these kids. In the telling of that history, a pathway opens up where the most meaningful part of my story enters, and I'm "at home."
Oddly enough, it is in the telling of that narrative that I feel most "American," because that story places me in the context of one of the nation's most perilous and life-changing times; that of slavery and emancipation. My enslaved great-grandmother's role in our history may have been involuntary, but the fact that she survived those painful years at a time when education was forbidden meant that she was illiterate. Schooling was far beyond her reach as both a slave and as a woman. Yet only one generation later one of her daughters, Alice, would create the first school for colored children in St. James Parish, Louisiana. Alice served as its principal until her death. One generation later, a grandson, George Allen, would serve as president of Texas Southern University, one of the nation's historically Black colleges. This surely speaks to her participation as a strong guiding force in her family -- in a fast-changing nation of imperfect folks trying to "get it right."
Through her long lifetime -- she lived to be 102 -- she was able to instill in her 13 children enough ambition, dedication to principle, idealism, and ethical standards that her great-grandchildren, of whom I'm now among the eldest, are still among the nation-builders, in a nation of extraordinary ordinary folks still trying to get it right.
I touched on none of that, but just being reminded of the full story of how much later generations (mine) were enabled by those who lost almost 300 years to the evil institution of slavery in this country continues to allow me to feel the full weight of my citizenship in this still-striving young country ... in my role as a passionate interpreter, a truth-teller, serving in a federal agency, the National Park Service.
This morning gave an indication of just how important my ranger role is in these continuing chaotic times as we continue the process of forming that "... more perfect Union."
As I looked out into those upturned young faces, I could see tomorrow -- though innocence abounds -- but also I could see the openness that is an essential element in creating the future that they will live into ... .
It is such a privilege to be in a position to be able to influence their choices in even these small ways ... like sitting around in a semi-circle sharing history at Kennedy High School in Richmond, California, on this day, July 10, 2017.
We ended with a pledge.
Repeat after me:
"Every day in every way what I am to be I am now becoming!"In an odd way, these simple words speak not only to the state of adolescence, but to a young country in progress, as well.
And that, my friends, is an example of the simplicity that comes after complexity!
It felt right.