GADFLY: Obama Not the Only One Moved to Tears by BTW’s Triumph

The Booker T. Washington graduation ceremony was awesome, in the truest, as opposed to the overused, sense of that word.

Posted by Marty Aussenberg on Tue, May 17, 2011 at 7:29 AM

Marty Aussenberg
  • Marty Aussenberg
I'm about to reveal something about myself that may surprise my detractors: I'm a big crybaby. Of course, I cry at movies—-all that crescendoing music never fails to jerk my tears, as it's intended to. Is there anyone who can keep a dry eye when they watch the scene in “An Affair To Remember” where Cary Grant realizes Deborah Kerr didn't meet him atop the Empire State Building, as they had arranged during their shipboard romance, because she was the victim of an automobile accident on the way to that appointed rendezvous?

Or how about the final scene in “Rudy” where, in spite of being a walk-on, his fellow Notre Dame football team members carry him off the field after he finds a place on the team roster, even if only for a single game? I cry when I see examples of animals suffering. And, even though I'm not much of a patriot by the standard of what passes for it these days, I cry when the Star Spangled Banner is sung, no matter how badly, at the start of athletic events. As an immigrant to this country, brought by parents who sought refuge from what they experienced at the hands of the Nazis, believe me, I know what patriotism really is, but I also know what isn't.

So it should be no surprise that, just as Obama admitted about himself, I watched most of the Booker T. Washington graduation ceremony on Monday through teary eyes, and, if you watched the festivities, you know I wasn't the only one who did. I frequently bemoan the overuse of my least favorite word in the English language these days, but if there was ever a time its use was called for, that ceremony was it: It was awesome, in the truest, as opposed to the overused, sense of that word. And, of course, the reason the whole graduation event was awesome was that it was (in a phrase repeated so much, it almost became the cliché du jour) inspiring.

The day was a triumph, all the way around: For BTW, it was a triumph for stick-to-it-iveness and, to use the Dale Carnegie term, the power of positive thinking. It was a tribute to an indefatigable, albeit preternaturally young, principal, and to the ability of the denizens of a subculture in Memphis whom most folks have given up on or counted out, to surmount the obstacles, both natural and manmade, that have been placed as impediments to their success.

It came at a particularly poignant time, against the background of a school-merger battle in which BTW represents what the suburban school districts view as the quintessential bogeyman of the urban school district they may be forced to take over, namely as a threat to their desire to maintain a lily-white demographic. ‘In your face, Germantown, Bartlett, Arlington, Collierville, and the county school board members and state legislators who are trying to help them maintain their pre-Brown v. Board of Education profiles,’ is what BTW has, in essence, said. ‘We're every bit as good as you, in educational achievement, and in so many other ways, and probably a whole lot better. You'll be lucky to have us as in your school system.’

The day was also a triumph for Memphis, a city which, it sometimes seems, never catches a break when it comes to its depiction in the national media, or in getting its fair share of positive attention. Who among us hasn't watched in dismay as Memphis got skipped over for achievement after achievement, whether it was the siting of the Rock 'n Roll museum, the award of an NFL franchise, or the location of businesses and industries that would help mitigate deepening poverty and unemployment problems. That is starting to change, subtly, with recent announcements on the economic development front, and yet Memphis still gets tarred, albeit unfairly, primarily for its crime problem.

The national media never seem to get it right about Memphis, and failed to once again by making it seem that the city had been entirely inundated by recent flooding. BTW's victory in the White House's “Race To The Top” contest has the potential to take some of the sting out of all that negative publicity, and show the world that, even in a neighborhood with, yes, a crime problem, good people can overcome bad situations.

And, finally, the day was a triumphal one for Barack Obama. Coming, as it did, on the heels of one of the greatest accomplishments of any wartime president since Harry Truman made the difficult decision to drop the nuclear bombs on Japan that hastened the end of World War II, his appearance in Memphis was an opportunity for Obama to burnish his image and standing by displaying something he has mastered so well, the common touch.

I have major problems with our current president, from his failure to deliver on so many of the promises he made to get elected to his seemingly never-ending capitulation to the intransigent methods of the conservatives in Congress. And yet who could fail to be touched by the way he related to those BTW graduates, bending over to console one of them who was reduced to tears by the enormity of the moment, hugging some of them as they received their diplomas, complimenting them on their achievements, or encouraging them to pursue their goals.

It didn't hurt that Obama showed his sense of humor either, by laughing heartily when the student who introduced him suggested that where the President was born was now one of the many must-know facts about him, or by jesting about the prospect of becoming the principal of his daughters' school to control unwanted (by a father) advances by boys.

I won't dwell on the negatives about the days' activities, which, in my opinion, included the unfortunate politicization of the event, including the presence of politicians who didn't belong in the room, and the sophomoric way the local broadcast media handled their coverage. Suffice it to say, BTW and Obama carried the day, and Memphis was (and will be) a whole lot better for it.

For more takes on the occasion, see also here and here.

Comments (28)

Showing 1-25 of 28

Indeed, a triumphant day for Memphis.

Posted by mayfield on 05/17/2011 at 8:57 AM

Yet another thing I didn't need to know about you, Marty.

Well, anyway, can we at least stop calling it BTW? Because everytime I see it, I don't think Booker T. Washington, I think By The Way.

Posted by Jeff on 05/17/2011 at 9:04 AM

Marty, man, you always touch me with your writing.

Posted by tomguleff on 05/17/2011 at 10:10 AM

Jeff: OMG; WTF! If calling itself BTW is good enough for the school,…, it ought to be good enough, even for you. At least, that's IMHO.

Oh, and saying you didn't want to know anything more about me made me cry--not really. But fear not: you still don't know anything about me--not really.

Tom: touched is how I like to think of you. Seriously, though, thanks.

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Posted by M_Awesomeberg on 05/17/2011 at 10:21 AM

It is good enough for the school, if that's what they want to do, as the school predates the newer meaning of btw. Then again, times and meanings change, and people are forced to change with them, whether they want to or not. Does the Land O' Lakes company refer to their butter as LOL? Probably not. But do look it up, and provide a link if you can find one, so I can not bother to click it.

Posted by Jeff on 05/17/2011 at 11:26 AM

With any luck, BTW, the school, will outlast btw, the symptom of a dumbed-down culture. Stay proud, Warriors!

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Posted by M_Awesomeberg on 05/17/2011 at 11:43 AM

You picked the wrong schools when trying to paint the suburban schools as 'lily-white'. Germantown HS is 42% white. Stop by some time and educate yourself.…

Congratulations BTW graduates!!

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Posted by skot on 05/17/2011 at 12:55 PM

Marty, you're making me homesick.

Posted by autoegocrat on 05/17/2011 at 1:37 PM


Booker Taliaferro Washington
Born April 5, 1856 Hales Ford Virginia, U.S.
Died November 14, 1915 Age 59 Tuskegee, Alabama, U.S.
Occupation Educator, Author and African American Civil Rights Leader

Washington was born into slavery to a slave mother and white father, who was a nearby planter, in a rural area in southwestern Virginia.

Posted by stoplying on 05/17/2011 at 7:56 PM

I thought part of law school was the mandatory removal of tear ducts, empathy, and sympathy. Can't you be disbarred for crying?

Posted by mad_merc on 05/17/2011 at 9:06 PM

In all seriousness Marty, this is an excellent article. Bravo to you sir and bravo to the kids of BTW for the much needed infusion of positive energy.

Posted by mad_merc on 05/17/2011 at 9:14 PM

Thanks for ruining "An Affair to Remember" and "Rudy" for me. I was going to watch those on VCR this weekend.

Posted by cdel on 05/18/2011 at 3:29 PM

Any school can score high if the lowest common denominators are the standards for graduation. Let's see...a black president visiting an all-black school... The Dept. of Education is not listed as a duty for the Federal Government, so Obama is using our tax dollars illegally to visit this city and donate time to schools.

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Posted by CHG on 05/19/2011 at 7:33 AM

You may not agree with it Charles, but it is clearly legal for a black president to visit a "black" school (assumption fallacy on your part, you don't KNOW that every student at that school is black, unless you have personally questioned each one, which you haven't).

Posted by Packrat on 05/19/2011 at 10:03 AM

Plus, Packie, WTF is Charles talking about in saying the "Dept. of Education is not listed as a duty for the Federal Government...?" "List?" "Duty?" When did the Department of Education cease to be a BRANCH of the federal government? If he means the STATE Department of, the states still belong to the Union, don't they?

It is no more "illegal" for Obama to visit Memphis in order to honor a school's achievement than it was for Bush to fly to Texas to cut brush -- or to come to Memphis to try to sell privatizing Social Security.

Charles has stopped making sense -- and not in the way suggested by David Byrne.

Posted by JB on 05/19/2011 at 10:23 AM

So Charles even assuming that the DOE is illegal or unconstitutional, how does that make Obama's trip and graduation speech illegal? Presidents have given commencement speeches long before there was a DOE. Is it because Presidential commencement speeches aren't specifically listed as a function of the federal government?

Posted by mad_merc on 05/19/2011 at 10:27 AM

Why are you people continuing to "argue" with CHG? It's about as fruitful as having a discussion with your car radio. It can't hear you; it just broadcasts.

Posted by BruceVanWyngarden on 05/19/2011 at 11:06 AM

The preceding announcement was from a veteran of such "arguments."

Posted by JB on 05/19/2011 at 11:11 AM

JB, I think we all know better than to feed the tolls but are compelled to do so anyway. And while I agree with Bruce for the most part, his point--one I've made myself-- is related to the "why clean the kitchen when it just gets dirty anyway" theory of housekeeping. True enough, but when I see something growing I reflexively reach for the disinfectant. As do we all. Me, you, him, and the whole Hee Haw gang.

Posted by Chris Davis on 05/19/2011 at 11:38 AM

Besides, I already argued Charles' point for him. he doesn't even have to show up anymore. We can all do it.

Posted by Jeff on 05/19/2011 at 3:12 PM

Buck Owens here- at this point in my L-T relationship with CHG I usually just gratuitously insult him rather than debate with him, as Bruce said, it's a wasted effort even expecting him to actually debate an issue honestly. Couldn't help it this time though, since he was even more illogical and off-base than usual--ILLEGAL for a sitting POTUS to attend a high school commencement ceremony???? Really? Charles, would you like to revise that statement, sir? We know you're reading this....

Posted by Packrat on 05/19/2011 at 3:26 PM

I wasn't suggesting that any of you fine lads actually stop having fun matching wits (or something) with CHG. It was more of a rhetorical question. I'm sure I'll fall prey to temptation again.

Posted by BruceVanWyngarden on 05/19/2011 at 3:55 PM

Bruce - I talk to my car radio all the time. Sometimes that Renee Montagne just makes me so mad.

Posted by cdel on 05/19/2011 at 4:18 PM

Aye, we all periodically and out of inner necessity "feed the tolls," meaning "trolls," as my illustrious colleague Mr. Davis (a genius but the only typist more fumble-fingered than myself) suggests.

There's a precedent for all this "wasted" rhetoric: the Clay-Calhoun-Webster debates, for examples, classic argumentss in the democratic process, most of them (like most congressional debates today and most web threads) beside the point of actually altering anyone's position. But, win or lose, knotheads notwithstanding, points need to be clarified and spoken for.

One thought, though: Note that we're debating ourselves, and Charles hasn't said a peep since we started doing that.

Posted by Jackson Baker on 05/19/2011 at 4:27 PM

I see this as a teaching moment like with some of my adult children. Sometimes my kids will make some oft cited political statement and stick out there chest and look all proud that they're informed. I will then present a few facts and watch as the wheels turn, revealing to them that all they hear on TV, or at work, or (worst of all) from their mother may not actually be true.

I realize that Charles is beyond reasoning, but one day one of these little kernels of knowledge may just find a gap in his armor and be able to take root. If I can help to cast just a sliver of doubt on any one of Charles' absolutes, then I shall continue to tilt at the CHG windmill.

Posted by mad_merc on 05/19/2011 at 6:39 PM
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