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.