Your Beautiful, Hopeful America

This is a lightly revised “Roughneck Grace” column. I re-post it today for reasons as close as family. And because I’m grown weary of all the fearful bellowing. But above all because of a word I’ve lately taken to heart: Amplify.

The conga line was no longer a line, but rather a fluid knot of nearly a thousand happy children winding in and around itself throughout the aisles of the auditorium while Cyril Paul and the Calypso Monarchs played from the stage. Cyril himself — in his 80s now — took a turn to dance with the youngsters, and it was tough to imagine how they would possibly settle back into their seats, but moments after Cyril struck a final beat on the drum head, they were all quietly in place, clutching their notebooks and directing their eyes toward the podium, where the chief organizer welcomed them to a young authors’ conference.

After her remarks, she invited me to deliver the keynote speech. I began by assuring the Midwestern kids I was not there to be cool and hip, as I am a 50-plus dad with failing hair. This always gets a laugh and has the added advantage of being true. Next, just to set the standard, I showed them a slide of my third grade report card, in which my teacher quite rightly expressed reservations about my future.

Then I talked about writing, and then I ended by showing a three-second video of my neighbor blowing up a silo with his homemade cannon, because you want the kids to appreciate art.

Then the young ones dispersed for a day of workshops. I attended one of these, taught by a man named Joe Horton. “I’m a rapper, an author, and a professor,” he said by way of introduction. He is also a husband and father, so he grinned and added, “And a trash-taker-outer.” The kids giggled at that.

Using a combination of lecture, conversation, guided visualization and a writing exercise, Horton wove those children a lovely 50 minutes about the mystery of creativity, pictographs, the birth of language, Northeastern African history, vintage graffiti in the Roman Colosseum and how our strength and intelligence as humans arise from our differences.

When he asked the children for their thoughts, hands shot up and ideas poured forth. When he asked them to write, the room filled with the rustle and scratch of every single pencil to paper, no goading required. Nor any reward, save the writing itself.

I gave my address four mornings in a row. Each day I looked out and saw hundreds and hundreds of engaged, attentive, bright-eyed children of all colors and creeds. That is not a slogan, that is not a hope, that is a fact. Their energy and their intelligence were a live force in the room. It was my privilege to be among them. It will be my privilege to step aside and let them pass me by. I am getting more and more cranky about folks who want to fight the future in fear. Here is your beautiful, hopeful America, I thought, as I watched them all dance. “Find the rhythm!” cried Cyril as the children serpentined, hands-to-shoulders in a single joyful chain, “Find the root of the song!”

They are the root of the song.


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