Graduation day

Guess whose name kept popping up at elementary and middle school commencement ceremonies in Berkeley, California? Hint: It wasn't John McCain's

Published June 13, 2008 8:45PM (EDT)

You won't find a more favorable demographic for Barack Obama than the parents and teachers of children who attend public school in Berkeley, California. So I can't say I was surprised yesterday, when a whole lot of happy pandemonium broke out during my son's elementary school graduation ceremony in response to the principal's observation about how great it was that the country these kids were growing up in had just witnessed a woman and an African-American fight it out for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States.

After all, the name of my son's school is Malcolm X Elementary.

But I have to admit a shock still ran through me. Just a moment earlier, the principal, Cheryl Chinn, had been running through a list of depressing challenges these kids would face in their lives -- climate change, violence, intolerance, race and class disparities, economic disarray... Those problems seemed a good deal bigger than these still fairly petite fifth graders. But they were immediately forgotten after the evocation of the campaign. And after the cheering subsided, while listening to these kids announce their goals in life -- physicist, architect, major league soccer player, teacher (one girl declared that she planned to be a singer, professional basketball player and lawyer) -- I suddenly realized that it was actually true -- any one of these rainbow-tinted kids could say to themselves, I'm going to grow up to be President of the United States, and mean it.

The glorious unreality of it all was reinforced at my daughter's middle school graduation ceremony, which took place just a few hours ago. (If you've been wondering why blogging's been a little light the last 24 hours, now you know.) While delivering a keynote speech, the vice principal also felt the need to namecheck Obama. I can't recall the exact quote, but it was something to the effect of how Obama had credited his family for raising him to believe not just that anything was possible for him, but that anything was possible for his nation.

It's been a long, often bitter, sometimes mired-in-manufactured-controversy campaign, and there's certainly no guarantee that the ultimate outcome will be applauded at Malcolm X Elementary or Longfellow Middle School. I also don't need to remind anyone that Berkeley is a town paved hip-deep with idealistic (and often unrealistic) rhetoric.

But there was still something amazing about hearing this white vice-principal, whom I had previously only known as the kind of tough disciplinarian that usually roams the hallways of a public middle school, addressing a predominantly African-American and Latino student body and quoting the words of Barack Obama as inspiration. How could one not be inspired? Sometimes the world really does change for the better, and as I watch my kids move along into the next stages of their lives -- (good god, can my little girl really be going to high school?) -- I am both envious and delighted at their new worlds of possibilities. New graduates, whether they are fifth graders or eighth graders or high school or college seniors usually have a little extra bounce in their step. They think they're something special. They think they can do anything.

And they're right.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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