The following remarks were delivered to the upper school student body this morning:
Each Sunday morning, my 86-year-old father and I meet at Panera to eat bagels and to talk politics. He is a staunch Conservative; I am a devout Liberal. Our conversations are often not especially productive since there is little that we agree on. Some Sundays we agree on nothing. He is a child of the Great Depression and I am a child of the 60’s. He sees Obama as a failure whose re-election will destroy this country; I see the Republican candidates and their platform as indifferent to the needs of most Americans in order to kowtow to an ultra-rich agenda at the expense of the rest of us. Such is the divide of modern America.
But because things can get pretty heated, and because I want to hold on to my inheritance, we have to retreat to some common ground. Usually, that amounts to some variation of the following:
1) The government is corrupt and ineffective anyway, 2) it has always been that way, 3) and there isn't anything that we can do about it.
That keeps the family peace, but it isn't very productive thinking. And it isn't really something I believe. Whether my father believes it or not depends on the Sunday.
One of my other political adversaries, the man who advises the Young Republicans here at school, said something very wise at Nightfall a couple of weeks ago. He remarked how at our school, we seem to be able to have a much more civil dialogue.
People aren't shouting, which is sometimes the way it gets at Panera. Here, we seem to have no trouble maintaining friendships with those whose politics we violently disagree with. Which is not the way it is in Washington these days. Regardless of why we believe that national divide exists, (and even that discussion polarizes most people), we have not fallen prey to that here. I celebrate that. You should too, and you should work your hardest to see that it continues.
And it is in that spirit that I embrace an idea once offered by a Republican, and I offer it with my very Democratic voice.
In 1989, during his Inauguration speech, Republican president George W. Bush (senior) spoke of "a thousand points of light, of all the community organizations that are spread like stars throughout the Nation, doing good." President Bush was talking about the churches, schools, charitable organizations, and other groups that he felt were necessary to provide a collective safety net for all of our fellow citizens.
These groups would assist with poverty, homelessness, hunger, ignorance, disease, guidance.
The idea was mocked, ridiculed, and satirized by everyone from Neil Young in the song "Rockin' In The Free World" to Dana Carvey in his regular imitation of Bush on Saturday Night Live. I may have even mocked the idea myself.
Few people then expected compassion from a conservative; they found Bush’s language to be a pompous attempt to capture the spirit of JFK's "ask not what your country can do for you..." They thought he was reaching, that he didn't really mean it. They accused him of passing off the obligations of government onto the shoulders of churches and civic organizations.
But you know what? President Bush was right. I don't know if he was right at the time, but I've known that he was right for at least the last ten years. In fact, for all of our citizens to have a chance in an increasingly difficult, it certainly takes many, many more than a thousand points of light.
For nearly the last twenty years, and in many ways since our school's inception, we have been one of those lights. That is not a boast or a collective pat on the back; it is a fact. If you are new, you need to know that we don't make a big deal about that around here. Perhaps sometimes to a fault, your school does not self-promote the ways it serves the Chattanooga community and even the global community, and there are many, many ways. We just do it as a matter of course and we move on. That's our way.
Admittedly, there was a time, back in the 90's, when some of our students were very intentionally engaging in community service as a means of getting into top colleges. As students were doing at other schools, too. But the colleges figured that out, and now, in your world, community service is an expectation, not a cynical decision or a standout activity. Which is stunning, if you think about it, that we have reached this place.
When I was your age, there weren't students at my high school, at least none that I knew of, doing any community service—no volunteering, no tutoring, no physical labor, no mentoring, no collecting, no fundraising, no assisting of the elderly, no Christmas parties for children. Maybe a thousand points of light weren't necessary back then, but we know that isn’t true.
So think on this fact for a moment: right now, in the city of Chattanooga, 41% of all the children who live here are living below the poverty level. Forty-one percent. When you walk downtown, when you glance at the day care centers and schools that you see as you drive downtown via Main Street or Dodds Avenue or 3rd Street or any other way that you move toward the city, 4 out of every 10 children you see are living in households that make less money than the amount that qualifies a family that size as having enough to live on. Even beyond city limits, chances are the 40% of the children you see walking with their families in Hamilton Place Mall, certainly at Wal-Mart, do not have enough to eat most days, probably can’t afford lunches at school and can’t bring a nutritious lunch themselves.
The national average for children living below the poverty level is 20%. So there is no doubt that you are living in a city with many of its citizens in crisis.
Some people, when they hear statistics like this, feel guilty or want you to feel guilty. Believe me, that is not my goal today. That is, in fact, the furthest thing from my goal. I want you to feel very, very good about the help that you have provided to individual people—an elderly woman, a boy who needs help with his homework, a Hospice patient dying in a hospital—and to groups, often the same groups over and over, year after year. I want you to recognize the skills, the creativity, the energy that you have brought to service projects large and small, dazzling and mundane.
In 2012, regardless of the national political divide, it is essential that our school remains one of those "1000 points of light." Our fellow citizens need it. Desperately. I would remind you first of all of the ways that we are already doing that--our work with the Chattanooga Food Bank, Habitat for Humanity, Chattanooga Boys' Club, Northside Neighborhood House, Y-Cap, St. Andrew's Center, Westside Elementary, and many others. Many of you help out in ways that no one else knows about.
But I would ask all of us to do more. Most of what I have mentioned are specific activities by specific groups. Which means that there is plenty of room for you, whether you are in one of those clubs or organizations or not. There is room in this city, there are huge gaps in fact, where the current programs staffed by schools like ours and churches and the United Way and other vouluntary groups simply cannot do enough.
Do you know, for example, that entire homeless families in our city only survive because our churches have a program where those families rotate from one church to another every week? The only reason those families are not homeless is because a different church is their home every week. Those churches do not care how their doctrine conflicts with the other churches in the program. The liberal church picks up the torch from the conservative church, and vice-versa. They only care that people need help and that they have the resources to provide that. And that is us, too.
Yes, on this Labor Day, when we are here working even though pretty much no one else is, it is essential that we remain one of those points of light. We have, in recent years, worked on Upper School projects of one sort or another, providing real assistance to people in Haiti and Nicaragua—meaningful trips, tangible help. But I might ask that we think about shining that light sometimes a little closer to home. If you have a way to make things brighter, I hope that you will involve others here and seek my help and get something going. I’m not sure that there is any more powerful work to ponder Labor Day.