Service with a Smile

MONTICELLO, Ark. — I watched President Barack Obama’s inauguration between classes today with pride and sore bones. Let me explain.

For the first time since I’ve started teaching, I can legitimately tell anyone that they can do anything they set out to accomplish regardless of race, creed or religion. That’s priceless. But so is the fact that we now have a president who walks the walk as well as talks the talk. President Obama showed his colors by not only asking people to participate in a day of service to honor Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday; he also took part by helping at a homeless center.

Community service — Middle school students participating in City Year paint a quote from Nelson Mandela on a support for the Interstate 630 overpass near Little Rock’s Kanis Park. More than 70 people showed up to volunteer to help on the cold day. (photo by Ronald Sitton)

That’s where my sore bones enter. I started yesterday’s day of service by going to the Clinton Presidential Library to see City Year Heroes Opening Day, where 70 middle school students committed to working 100 hours of community service over the next five months. Keynote speaker C.J. Duvall, senior pastor at Theressa Hoover United Methodist Church, told the young participants that their service would inspire even more people to serve. North Little Rock Alderman Maurice Taylor then led the students in the Young Heroes Pledge, which concluded with a promise:

“I am a young hero and I will make a difference.”

Just like their new president, they honored that promise. Along with other volunteers, the City Year Heroes went to work at Little Rock’s Kanis Park, Carver YMCA and the Salvation Army, and at the North Little Rock Boys & Girls Club.

I joined the group at Kanis Park. We stripped the paint off the basketball goals in preparation for a new paint job. Some of the younger participants painted pictures and wisdom from King and Maya Angelou onto the pillars supporting the Interstate 630 overpass. A group of older folks (including myself) turned to clearing brush after lunch. I haven’t exercised so much since I began teaching in the late ’90s.

In return for the work, each participant received a gift certificate for Chik-Fil-A sandwiches. But the real payment came from the satisfaction of working for the community at large.

I worked with Justin Edge, a 24-year-old captain of the Arkansas Queen riverboat, during most of the day. Though we spoke a lot about the volunteer work, we also talked about Obama’s presidency. While talking about the upcoming inauguration, I realized Obama had more of a hand in my volunteer work than just setting a good example.

I must admit, I wouldn’t have voted for Obama if I would have had the opportunity to vote for Ron Paul. But by the time Arkansas got to vote, it wasn’t possible for me to do so. So I voted for Hillary Clinton in the primary. I still wasn’t sure I would vote for the Democrat in the election prior to November.

On the other hand, my wife knew exactly who would get her vote. Tanya volunteered for the Obama campaign, helping with the phone banks and even going door-to-door in Missouri to get out the vote while I attended the Associated Collegiate Press/College Media Advisers fall convention in Kansas City. While there, we learned Obama would speak at Springfield that evening.

I called the dean to make sure it would be OK to take students to this potentially historic event. Two students decided to go, along with my wife, sister-in-law and me. We arrived in Springfield at 4 p.m. and promptly made it to the gate at Parkview High School’s football stadium. However, we were told we needed to go to the end of the line — nearly seven city blocks away. Even after we got in line, more people kept coming and falling in.

We waited in line almost five hours. Sometimes we’d move as much as five steps at a time, but mostly we stood in place.

“I’d say almost half the people are 30 or younger,” retired school teacher Kathy Goff of Rogersville, Mo., said, noting the city housed eight colleges, including Missouri State, Evangel and Drury. “The other thing about Springfield, it’s not socially diverse. Less than 24 percent nonwhite, but the crowd has larger (representation) proportionately, which is good for us.”

Volunteer organizers occasionally appeared to tell us to have faith and hope because we would get in to see Obama prior to his speech. As we got closer to the stadium, protesters sat on the other side of the street with their pre-adolescent children holding signs like “Don’t make me live in an Obama-nation.” Goff noted that McCain did not have to put up with protesters near his rally as “Free Speech Zones” loved by Bush & Co. kept them beyond sight and sound.

A Disservice — A group of protesters line up in Springfield, Mo., prior to Barack Obama’s Nov. 2 rally. Parents brought their pre-adolescent children to the event to hold signs with sayings including “Don’t make me live in an Obama-nation.”

Just as we finally reached the stadium gates that Nov. 2 evening, the Secret Service turned the metal detectors sideways, promising to let us enter in five minutes.

“There’s some things the Obama thing does well. Planning for this was not one of them,” a security officer said.

Then they told us to move down to the end of the stadium if we wanted to get in. We walked around the back of the end zone, down past the track, and made it to the 27-yard-line with the podium at about the opposite 30. When Obama spoke to that crowd, approximately 40,000 people had packed a stadium with seating to hold 5,400. While that number is easily dwarfed by the mass of humanity witnessing today’s inauguration, it still made an impression on me.

Looking back at that day just prior to the election, I remember being slightly peeved that Obama used the same joke he’d used at a previous rally that I’d seen on CNN. But more importantly, I remember two quotes that struck me at that time. The first was Obama’s insistence that American people wanted and deserved something better.

“We can prove that we’re not as divided as our politics suggest. We’re more than red states or blue states, we’re the United States,” he said, and I thought here’s someone who understands the idea of “United We Stand” better than any president since Abraham Lincoln.

But I believe his other quote impacted me more than any politician I’ve ever heard:

“The change we need won’t just come from government,” he stated. “We have to usher in a new era of responsibility. All of us have to come together.”

True, that’s not as eloquent as John F. Kennedy asking us what we can do for our country, but it hit me hard.

I cannot remember feeling as patriotic following a speech in my lifetime. Granted, I’ve heard empowering speeches from MLK and JFK, but I wasn’t there to witness them. This was a call to my generation to get off its duff and do something.

I’ve always considered my job as a college professor as service to my country, especially considering the pay. But here was a call to do something more, something that would require me to take time out of my time and give back.

In retrospect, there was no way for Obama’s inauguration speech to top that. Sure, it was nice, but he’d already said what I needed to hear. And he already showed me that he’d roll up his sleeves to help, too. I can only wonder if his bones feel as sore as my bones do today.

One last thing: I love my country and always have, but for the first time in a long time, I’m excited about being an American. And that’s worth more than something to me; it means everything.