I had a guest speaker on Tuesday. He talked about personal responsibility, work ethic, goal-setting, and civic service. It caused quite a bit of controversy, I guess, but my students ate up every word Obama spoke. It was a small class of seniors who will be first-generation college students. The words about growing up in a single-parent family, not having enough money, and making the extra effort to wake up earlier, work harder, and dream that impossible dream hit home with this group.
Surprisingly, it hit home with me, too. This was not a dramatic speech. nor was it particularly original or shocking. What struck me most was the sincerity of these ideas and how deeply I believed them. It's not just an idle speech to wonder how American students will and have contributed to society at large. In fact, as Obama mentioned the students sitting "in your place" 20 years ago, I realized--yep, that was me. Our generation who takes credit for Google, Facebook, and Twitter. In fact my friend Paul from high school is a developer for one of the afore-mentioned companies, and I reconnected with him just recently using one of the afore-mentioned services. That's me.
We saw ourselves in his words. And we saw him. Afterwards, a girl in my class said, I've never heard a president talk to me and talk like he understood me. It is a nice rhetorical move and a darn effective one to buy credibility with one's own personal story. Remind me again, why is this controversial?
Meanwhile, a respected colleague completely baffled me just a day later with her shocking story about how she glimpsed a license plate that read: NO GOD. Seriously? That's shocking? She doesn't know that there are atheists in the world? She's about as secular as you get in this tiny conservative town, but even she said she felt like she should be offended that the state of California allowed that plate. I couldn't even reply because I didn't have a clue where people were coming from. I've always grown up around atheists and have assumed that t-shirts reading "God is dead" are just as much part of life as, oh, the ichthus. My liberal-minded friends around the table made snide comments like, "That's awfully brazen to claim that there's no god at all" and "Maybe they'd have a better car than a Civic if they did believe in God." What? The narrator went on to explain how she wanted to take a picture on her cell phone but didn't want to crash, so instead she just called her husband with the news that she was tailgating someone about to be struck by lightning.
What amazes me is that both of these stories come as surprises to me. Yet again, I take for granted a set of shared values and expectations that others do not. It's a good eye-opener for me, though slightly disheartening. At the end of the day, as I lie down to sleep hopeful, but without a prayer, I think I'd rather live in a society engaging in healthy debate about banal topics than in one that accepts dogmatic statements without question.