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2009

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Obamalation

Andrena Zawinski

They are waving instead of burning American flags abroad now! Nice change. So we are reminded by Writer’s Almanac Garrison Keillor in his November 12 ”Sitting on Top of the World” piece in the Salt Lake Tribune, telling us that instead of the election of “pompous yahoos ... we have us a 47-year-old prince from the prairie” and going on to say “he’ll be the first president in history to look really good making a jump shot.” It makes me think I should have some sense of joy that I do not. And it makes me recall being in London with the National Writing Project some time back when a little girl once asked me in a school I was touring and in a class I was observing: "Why don't you Yanks love our Queen?" which now rings of the kind of elation I should be experiencing over Obama as President.

I, too, as an educator have had some moments of Obamalation. This is the first election when I didn’t bemoan the apathy of my community college students - this time they were straining-at-the-bit to vote, boasted "I Voted" stickers across their Nike labels, big smiles all around! But better yet, when I earlier had given them the “A More Perfect Nation” speech Obama made addressing race in America and his Reverend Jeremiah Wrights’ previous incendiary remarks, they wrote thoughtful and analytic replies--they were all intending to vote for him with great hope, yet none of them expected miracles; and all of them were clear they expected him to be everybody's president, and equally clear that the presidential office was and never will be exactly radical.

Anyway, walking home from school that particular day with a smile on my face from reading those midterm in-class essays, I found myself holding my breath again as I was met with the usual dope-smoking bunch on one East Oakland corner - and again, I used my imaginary hands to cover my real ears to quiet their flinging of the F word, the B word, and the N word at each other, oblivious to the flurry of hope with which the nation of my students had just come with their pens to their pages. I understand how my students are hopeful, yet not pie-in-the-sky high, over the new administration. Many of them later, for example, had mouths dropping open over Obama's choice of re-enlisted Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and plans to charge into Afghanistan, especially with Obama’s defense of choosing Gates for his "experience." John McCain or Hillary Clinton might be elected now, they aptly reminded me, if that line of reasoning had been followed.

So here I am, sad instead of hopeful because the military is, in anticipation of Obama's declared intent, proactively sending troops to Afghanistan in huge numbers as I type here now. And here I am sad instead of hopeful to have received an e-mail from a retired military friend, who has been living abroad with her husband for a few years, announcing she was pulled back into service and was enroute to Afghanistan - feminist in a bourga. Another bad idea. And a worse one is that the army is also still lowering standards on reading levels and forgiving drug offenses to get bodies into battle. My real hope is that my students will hang on as their financial aid checks fail to arrive, hang on as they scrounge for used book money and adequate day care, hang on as they are tempted to view education merely as job training to leave behind to “join up” for job security; and, if they do, that they will make it back to the classroom and make it back whole.

I have, however, heard something good lately, something that makes me more hopeful - and that is that we have been teaching Iraqi teens (delinquents in internment) how to read and write in their own language. (The reading levels at best were third grade, but these students are now moving up to expected levels for their ages.) What they are choosing to read is the Koran, and they are angry as they think critically about some of the interpretations they have been fed that were feeding other’s self-serving ambitions. Mothers there are supporting their children’s internments, yet another reason they don't want the U. S. out of Iraq. Way beyond that idealized image of a WWII soldier handing a kid a chocolate bar! But we are dropping the ball there, and heading for a hoop shot, in the midst of guns and bullets, in Afghanistan.

Me, well, I'd like to see our own kids taught to read and be able to apply critical thinking skills to their own important texts right here in the all too often faltering American school system that is riddled by its own bullets of internalized racism and even those real bullets gunning down youth on the battleground of their own streets. Somehow, I’m just not feeling the Obamalation, not quite sitting on top of the world, not yet.