Motorcycle accidents, keyboard activism and my trip to the White House.
2016 didn’t turn out the way we had planned. All of us started the year with a joyful spirit, as if for some reason we were confident of the good that would happen in the coming year. And we were wrong about some things. And we’re still mourning, some of us.
I imagine you and your friends had some hopes dashed as well, if the collective thoughts of Twitter are any indication. I remember showing up to work the day after the election—an office full of determined activists suddenly silenced, if only briefly.
Aleppo’s tragic story lingered in the background of every social media trip I’ve taken this year, blood-soaked children orphaned and claiming the headlines consistently, like they knew that our support only reached the edge of the computer screen. But eventually fingers tired from keyboard solidarity, and people moved on to the latest Tasty recipe. Syria is a world away. What can we do? We saw legends die, far-off figures who fantastically seemed as if they lived next door. They had offered up words to remind us that we’re not the only ones who are lonely, or tired or dying, and honestly I’m not sure if we’ll ever realize the impact that they made on our lives, or even how much time we spent alone with them. At least not until that moment when we pull their names up on Spotify or Netflix because we desperately need them again.
I’ve always thought of myself as an optimist, but in a year that seemingly fought to quell any proactive thoughts I might’ve had, it’s been almost exhausting to pretend as though I was still looking forward to what the future had to offer. Outside of my immediate life-is-good bubble, it was as if the world was determined to prove my optimism unrealistic.
Turns out my cynicism isn’t unfounded, considering there’s no reason to believe that suddenly humans will treat each other better. America isn’t what it was, nor is it what we hope it to be.
I was talking with an old friend recently, a guy who owns a story that embraces hard drugs and violence and his triumph over them. A few years ago, he was struck by a bus as he rode his motorcycle. It ripped his leg almost completely off. Shattered femur, smashed hands, lying in the street in a daze. A world of pain. Emergency surgery ensued after losing an enormous amount of blood, but save for a couple bionic parts whirring around, he’s fine now. And he’s got an almost eloquent view on his experience. Something he texted me—a fairly deep statement for a casual conversation—resounded.
“Is happiness circumstantial? Maybe we’ve just been aiming our happiness at the wrong things. Maybe we’re not trying hard enough for ourselves and the people around us.”
Last week, I was invited to the White House. I remember the exact moment I entered—glancing around, I was overcome with the thought of who had walked these halls before me. Men and women of all faiths, colors and creeds, each having contributed to the health of our nation somehow. I made awkward eye contact with Ronald Reagan in the hall, and explored room after room to see who had been immortalized on the walls or as a bust. I stood under Kennedy’s portrait for awhile.
I spoke with Kal Penn on education reform and his time working at the White House in the Office of Public Affairs. I took a selfie with Usher. I listened as Jay Pharaoh cracked jokes with the Secretary of Education, and brushed against Andy Cohen as he made his way into the far room for the First Lady’s address. I was encouraged and inspired by their willingness to help with our mission in education.
But we weren’t there to chat with celebrities—the event was for school counselors, and speaking with these men and women who fight daily to protect and guide students as they traverse the trail that is high school was truly a privilege. They support Better Make Room in the most pure way: getting students to college. Better Make Room is an education campaign that gives a voice to Generation Z students across the nation, and provides tools to get them in and through college. It’s been an absolute honor to work on this project for the White House and First Lady, and although the Obama Administration is finishing up their time there, our work is yet to be completed. The campaign will continue.
That thought was echoed in Michelle Obama’s farewell address to the nation: We’re not done. This is only the beginning. President Obama and the First Lady may be leaving the White House, but all who were present that day heard the urgency in her voice as she pleaded with us to remember our nation’s youth. Near the end of her speech her voice shook, and from my seat I saw tears in her eyes. But her words only became stronger, and more adamant, and I remember this part well:
“It is our fundamental belief in the power of hope that has allowed us to rise above the voices of doubt and division, of anger and fear that we have faced in our own lives and in the life of this country. Our hope that if we work hard enough and believe in ourselves, then we can be whatever we dream, regardless of the limitations that others may place on us. The hope that when people see us for who we truly are, maybe, just maybe they, too, will be inspired to rise to their best possible selves.”
Barack and Michelle Obama embody hope for millions of Americans. And now we see the exit of a President who—policy and party aside—fought to do what he believed was right, up until the day he left office. There is no debate that he represented the United States of America with dignity, a figure who could stand tall without controversy and demonstrate how to be a husband, father and leader. And it is one of the single greatest failures of American politics that our admiration of a man’s values and integrity is limited to a political party. Lo and behold, it IS possible to disagree with and respect a political figure simultaneously. Based on policy beliefs and convictions, some are sad to see him go, and that’s okay. Others will breathe a sigh of relief at his departure, and that’s okay too.
We’ll move on from the current administration, because we have to. We’ll see a new leader enter and we’ll speak out both in support and in outrage, as needed. And we’ll continue our work to see this year trounce its precedent. Good people still need to do good things, and sometimes that means you’ll need to speak up or volunteer your time or donate your money to make things happen. Your voice might tire, hoarse from effort. Your hands will grow calloused from long nights of working.
Optimism isn’t a nervous laughter that does nothing to quench fears of the future. It’s not a blind hope that things will suddenly get better. It’s not assuring your friends that their anxiety—about the election, or health care, or social issues, or paying their bills, or violence abroad or foreign affairs—is an overreaction. Optimism in the face of tragedy looks an awful lot like action. Maybe optimism is trying just a little harder for ourselves and the people around us.
And so my cynicism fades with the proof that people are still here—fighting. The American flag, as hopeful a symbol as any, seems to glow a little brighter when you know how many good people are doing good things, with no plans to stop. 2017 comes with a lot of baggage, but I think we’ll reach the other side having accomplished more than we realize, as long as we remember what optimism actually means.