Remembering the sounds of Presidential and Vice-Presidential Words: A Morning Reading for My Students

Saturday, November 7, 10am-12pm : Had we not been out of cell service, my family would have heard the news. We would have seen the messages stacking up from friends and family on our phones, rejoicing in the announcement. But as it was, we were located somewhere off the Kancamagus Highway, playing in the woods with our good friends. Crouching low with Nina, my good friends’ almost three year old, I pointed out a chipmunk eating a nut. She looked at it, smiled, and said: “It reminds me of the geriatric spider monkey in the zoo living in its natural habitat.” Startled, I looked at this young child. Did she really just say that? Despite my awe and reverence for children, I still am startled when precocious little ones piece together such sophisticated statements as young Nina just had. At about the time that Nina and I were crouched looking at a chipmunk, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris had just been named victorious.

Humans are designed to learn. We seek knowledge and meaning. In terms of neuroplasticity, though — the brain’s capacity to rewire, learn and absorb and synthesize new information — there are two peak times in one’s life when the capacity to learn is maximized: 2–5 years old — the age of Nina — and adolescence — which spans high school, and thus captures each of you.

Students — you will remember now better than any other time in your life. You will find yourself singing the songs that you are listening to now , with the words etched into your memory, for the rest of your lives. When I hear, for example, Counting Crows or Phish or Dave Matthews Band playing — bands from my high school experience — I feel a tug at my heart that is so visceral it almost hurts, and yet it fills me with joy as I become flooded with memories. You will remember conversations you share now, and the people with whom you share these conversations, forever. Believe me, students: You will remember now.

I was in high school during the 1996 presidential election.

Bill Clinton was running for re-election against Bob Dole. In the midterm election, in 1994, the democrats lost control of both the House and the Senate for the first time in decades. Seen as an erosion of confidence, many thought Clinton’s chances of re-election were slim.

In the 1996 election, 49% of the eligible voting population cast a vote. It was the lowest turnout in the history of the United States. Clinton ended up winning the election, delivering his victory speech Tuesday night — the same day as the election. Imagine that?

I remember watching the speech with my family.

Here is something I do not remember though: I do not remember Clinton talking about race in his victory speech. So I certainly do not remember him talking about ending systemic racism.

***

I wonder: What will each of you remember about this election?

I hope you remember that nearly 70% of eligible voters cast a vote in the 2020 presidential election, despite being in the middle of a raging pandemic. We have not experienced such a level of voter turnout since 1900. Clearly, people felt activated, felt called to action, and understood the critical responsibility of voting.

After the votes were cast, we waited. And waited. What a week last week was!

However, On Saturday night, President-elect Joe Biden and vice-president elect Kamala Harris addressed the nation.

Biden, in response to months of tension, said:

“Americans have called on us to marshal the forces of decency and the forces of fairness. To marshal the forces of science and the forces of hope in the great battles of our time.”

I hope each of you remember what Biden outlines as the battles of our time. He listed:

Students, faculty , White Mountain — these battles are real. And it will take all of our attention, care and commitment to stay focused on each of these respective yet deeply interconnected battles.

I want to be clear on two things:

  1. There is no other option than to engage. We must fight Covid. We must root out systemic racism. And we must save our climate.
  2. These are not political topics. These are not liberal battles or liberal values. These are human values.

It can feel overwhelming, to consider the weight of each of these — global health, racial injustice and climate action — and more so it can feel exhausting to continue to fight for each of these, but we must. I so appreciated that Biden invoked hope. He said:

“But once again, America has bent the arc of the moral universe towards justice. Kamala Harris — will make history as the first woman, first Black woman, first woman of South Asian descent, and first daughter of immigrants ever elected to national office in this country.”

And so, last Saturday, barriers were broken. Glass ceilings shattered.

And that evening, students, just two days ago, Kamala spoke directly to you. To the youth of our country, and in extension, to the youth of the world.

Kamala said:

“Regardless of your gender, our country has sent you a clear message: Dream with ambition, lead with conviction, and see yourself in a way that others might not see you, simply because they’ve never seen it before.”

As I return to thinking about memory and neuroplasticity — lucky you students. Lucky you because, I hope and imagine, that those words — and more importantly the deliverer of those words — will be forever etched in your memory.