Excuse me, sir, this is America. And it’s about time we stop feeling like we have to apologize for it.
The United States of America. The grandest global experiment to date. A land marked for its opportunity. A land of adventurers and explorers, wanderers and innovators, pioneers and risk takers. A land of unequaled wealth and prosperity. A land that affords the luxuries and conveniences that we all take for granted. A land that lives in the shadow of its sins. America, the greatest place on planet Earth.
I spend my days in the classroom with high school students. Many of them are seniors about to embark on an uncharted future. In fact, this is the 20th year that I have walked with these semi-adults as they finish up a journey they began before they could tie their own shoes. It’s humbling, I tell you. A lot has changed in two decades. Hair styles, fashion sense, and popular fads have swayed back and forth along the coolness scale. Technology has altered the way the high school experience works and feels for students. Even our community has shifted from a sleepy town dotted with old homesteads and small neighborhoods to a bustling, commercial development, with more on the way.
One day, out of the nearly 3,600 days sticks out. The day the Towers fell. September 11, 2001. During my first period class, our principal came by to alert me that something catastrophic was taking place, the extent of which we would have been foolish, at the time, to predict. Shortly after, our administrators called a special assembly, a time of prayer for our nation. After that, we all made our way, hushed and stunned, back to our classrooms to resume, as best we could, our academic day. I had seniors. I remember clearly that nobody found a desk, the traditional seating order abandoned in light of the stark reality painting flames in the sky. Without smart phones, television or working cable in the classroom, I plugged in a radio to the back wall, and we listened as Tom Brokaw’s voice filled the room. Within ten minutes of our return, the Towers began to crumble, disbelief filled the air . . . the heaviness was palpable.
As a rule, seniors are rarely quiet. They are also rarely emotionally sober. This was a moment that I marked in my memory as both. Breaking the stunned silence, one voice spoke. A young man, pondering the consequences of this heinous act uttered this declaration, “Our lives might just have changed forever.” At the age of 18, one senior spoke the words that specifically pointed to the possibility of imminent war, and the even greater chance that the others in that room, already defined as legal adults, would be required to be a part of it. Little did he know that his declaration would inform the next 14 years of our lives as Americans.
Since that moment etched in my memory, I have watched an entire generation of students enlist . . . proud and valiant warriors in our global conflict. However, I have also witnessed, over time, essays composed with pro-war sentiment and stalwart patriotism erode into a thick bog of unanswered questions, skepticism about the global political climate along with a dash of downright isolationist tendencies. Media images of our enemies burning the red, white and blue have morphed into media stories, like the one out of the University of California Irvine, where our own citizens argue whether or not displaying the flag on campus reflects the necessary inclusivity. Our attempts to avoid offending our enemies has required, in many ways, a repudiation of our own greatness, a softening of our outspoken gratitude for a citizenship we did nothing to earn. I don’t hold a political party or a particular politician at fault. I see the manipulation of tolerance as the instigator.
The truth is that at the core of our nation’s founding principles is the essence of tolerance. We need not add it. It already exists as a primary ingredient in the very fabric out of which our flag is woven. In fact, our founding fathers are the architects of it. Very few of our modern enemies aspire to our practice or our definition of tolerance in their respective cultures. No, in fact, we are a spectacular study of what can happen when people groups, guiding beliefs and core values from all over the world attempt to live together in a shared pursuit of liberty. Our survival, staggering. Our success, singular.
I, for one, will not be shamed into believing that our missteps as a nation define our identity on this spinning globe. Whether the nations of this planet understand this fully, they need America to continue to prosper. They need these mountains, prairies, and oceans, “white with foam” to continue to yield a harvest, plentiful enough to sustain life in the face of this world’s catastrophes. We need a return to our unabashed support of one another, and a renewal of a tougher skin. We have little time to be the easily offended, mind numbingly divisive, ridiculously litigious society we have become. This world desperately needs to believe that this experiment of democracy really can work, and we are the only ones who can show them. America, I don’t mind if I do.