Today I made my sons (and two visiting friends) watch the 44th President of the United States of America take the oath of office. (They were all out of school because of snow.) I even made them watch part of his speech. I know that, one day, they'll be helping their children study the presidents for a history test. And, I wanted them to be able to say, "I was watching when the first African-American president was sworn in to office."
Even though I did not vote for him, I wanted my sons to witness history unfolding. As we watched Barack H. Obama sit there on that podium, waiting to take that solemn oath, I reminded them that he is our president now. We may not agree with everything he does, but it is God's command that we support him in our prayers and in our efforts to make this country a better place.
As I watched the inauguration, I could not help but think how far our country has come in 40 years.
When I was 8 years old, integration took place at Kimberly Elementary School. This upcoming change had been the talk of the town for a good part of the summer. But, once we walked through those double doors that September, it seemed like a non-event. They were just four nice kids. My favorite of these four new kids was Anthony Hamilton. Anthony was wonderful--smart and funny--and he treated everyone with respect and compassion.
One day, while we were at recess, a few of the girls were being mean to me. This particular group's favorite name for me was "fatty, fatty, four eyes." Well, Anthony heard them and walked over and told them to leave me alone. Then he told me, "Don't worry about those dumb ol' girls. They don't know nothin'." From that point on, Anthony was my hero.
Two years later, Kimberly Elementary School got its first African-American teacher. Her name was Mrs. Freid. Once again the town was talking. But, to the best of my memory, once she arrived, everyone simply accepted her. I adored her. I considered her my reward for surviving two years of Mary Will Findley.
Mrs. Freid was only the second teacher I ever had who attempted to make the classrom a place children could actually enjoy. (I'll tell you about the "first one" another time.) She brought an upholstered rocker from her house into the room, and each child got a chance to sit in that chair and read. (Goodbye stuffy old cloakrooms!) Even when it wasn't your turn to sit in Mrs. Freid's chair, she made sure you had a comfy place to read and work and rest--on her own, she had sewn together carpet samples to make all these wonderful little "patchwork" rugs, which she placed around the room. She always encouraged us, "Use your imagination!", and she made it easier for us to do just that.
Mrs. Freid always wore her salt-and-pepper-gray hair in a bun, which made her look a lot like the Pentecostal women in my life. But her "bun" was special--she kept a pencil stuck in it. That pencil announced to all of us that this teacher was prepared and meant business.
One day, Mrs. Freid had come to my desk to help me with one of those nasty little math problems. I remember looking down at her brown hand on my white paper and thinking how pretty the yellow chalk dust looked against her dark skin. Something made me reach down and wipe off her hand, and when I did, she kissed me on top of the head.
Mrs. Freid eventually moved on to larger schools. She took her rocker, but left us the "patchwork" rugs. I never did get those nasty little math problems she always tried to help me with, but her year in my life taught me much deeper lessons about things more important than long division--passion, intelligence, integrity, tenderness, preparedness and (of course) imagination--and that none of these things have anything to do with the color of a person's skin.
So, today, as my boys and their friends and I watched Barack Obama being sworn in as our president, I thought with gratitude about Mrs. Freid and Anthony Hamilton. I hope they were watching.