These are the times; Paine and Trump

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Eight years ago today, I was in my first year of teaching at Gaylord High School.  I was teaching an American Government class, and it had been a very eventful first semester.  The historic election of Barack Obama, I was told by a student, was due to his being “half-white” since black people are too lazy and too stupid to become president.  Such is life in the Great White North.  

In November, we watched a replay of Mr. Obama’s speech from Grant Park.  I watched as some students fought a losing battle against their tears even as I choked back my own.  For many of us the recognition that something profound had just happened in our country was more emotional than we had prepared for.

And then on January 20, 2009, I invited students to bring their lunches to my room if they were interested in watching the inauguration. About fifteen students students showed up with their brown bags or their lunch trays (they eat that stuff every day?), and we listened intently to the new president’s message.  I was sitting on the counter in the back of the room taking in Mr. Obama’s gracious recognition of all the factors that made his election possible, and all the things that he hoped would mark his presidency.

Toward the end of the speech he read this quote in reference to a critical moment in the Revolutionary War.  “Let it be told to the future world, that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive, that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [and to repulse] it.”

I leapt from the counter and shouted “That’s Thomas Paine!  He’s quoting Thomas Paine!”  The students looked back at me, some in shock, some in passive recognition that this new teacher was a bit of a nerd, and then returned to watch Mr. Obama’s closing comments.  It’s one of those moments I shall never forget.  

That Mr. Obama recognized that the world George W. Bush left us was as damaged and perilous as the world George Washington faced during the worst times of our revolution was very apt.  Our status in the world, our economy, and our confidence had been shattered by the reckless Presidency of Bush and his neo-con criminals.   Only Richard Nixon left office with a lower approval rating.  

What a difference eight years makes.  But this column is not about what happened to the country during those eight years.  It’s not about the accomplishments and failings of Barack Obama as President.  It’s not about what happened to the hope we all felt on that freezing January 20th of 2009.  It’s about what’s happened to me.

Today at noon, there’ll be no students with questionable food on red plastic trays.  There’ll be no greasy brown bags or cartons of nearly outdated milk.  My room will be quiet.  The door will be closed.  The lights will be off.  Inside, I will sit in silent protest of what we, the people, have done to ourselves.  

I will read a couple of past inaugural addresses.  Mr. Obama’s, John Kennedy’s, Abraham Lincoln’s, maybe one of Franklin Roosevelt’s.  I will do this because I need to know that the self-inflicted wounds of a Trump presidency are not likely to be permanent.  I will read all of Paine’s “Crisis I” because it remains the single greatest piece of writing about resistance to tyranny.   The opening lines of Crisis I are familiar to many.

“THESE are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value.”

It is this call to action, which I have hanging on a board in my room, that provides inspiration to me whenever the day-to-day challenges of life start piling up.  I ask my students to avoid taking short cuts in their education.  I ask them when they’re playing video games to not set all the sliders on their players to 99.  I ask them to recognize that Paine is watching us all.  He’s especially watching today, as people of good hearts and sound minds face a Trump presidency which lacks either.

But it’s halfway through Paine’s essay, written on a frozen drum skin just before Christmas in 1776, that is most meaningful for today.  In calling for the colonists to step up actions against the British sympathizers, Paine recognizes the limits of impassioned speeches and eloquent writing:

“Say not that this is revenge, call it rather the soft resentment of a suffering people, who, having no object in view but the good of all, have staked their own all upon a seemingly doubtful event. Yet it is folly to argue against determined hardness; eloquence may strike the ear, and the language of sorrow draw forth the tear of compassion, but nothing can reach the heart that is steeled with prejudice.”

And so as I watch my wife head to Washington DC for the first protest of her life, I know we all must find ways to resist.  In a world where our attention spans are shortened by the thirst for the next big thing, we cannot become complacent.  Confronting Trump and his supporters on every turn is how this will end well for all of us…even those who have been suckered into believing hate and greed are a path to their happiness.
Keep it ugly.  Thomas Paine would advise nothing less.

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8 Comments on “These are the times; Paine and Trump”

  1. Jessica Rickard January 20, 2017 at 9:34 am #

    Thank you for helping me find the path out of despair and anger. Now I know that Thomas Paine has my back, and I have to keep on protesting to what is not right. I refuse to accept the status quo. Jessica Gerrard Rickard Traverse City, MI

    On Fri, Jan 20, 2017 at 9:26 AM, The Grumblings wrote:

    > Mark Pontoni posted: “Eight years ago today, I was in my first year of > teaching at Gaylord High School. I was teaching an American Government > class, and it had been a very eventful first semester. The historic > election of Barack Obama, I was told by a student, was due to his” >

  2. Marcia Pontoni January 20, 2017 at 10:59 am #

    Thanks. Don’t stop writing. This brought tears to my eyes! Well done.

    Marcia

    Sent from my iPad

    >

  3. cindyricksgers January 20, 2017 at 8:05 pm #

    Thanks for this! I just shared it on my site with credit to you.

  4. Playamart - Zeebra Designs January 20, 2017 at 9:01 pm #

    I’m here thanks to Cindy. I laughed at the thought of you leaping and exclaiming bout Thomas Paine, but years and years and years from now, those students will remember, and you will have served them well… to awaken them and to prepare them to perhaps one day stand up for what’s right…

    • Mark Pontoni January 20, 2017 at 9:19 pm #

      Thanks very much. It’s been a rough couple of months. Good to laugh now and then!

  5. Joss January 20, 2017 at 10:56 pm #

    Thanks to Cindy, I came by for a visit. I’m glad I did.

  6. ashiusx March 15, 2017 at 4:06 am #

    Your students are lucky, I wished my teachers did such a special thing during Obama’s inauguration.

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  1. Thoughts on Inauguration Day | cindyricksgers - January 20, 2017

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