Every school I've had the privilege of speaking at has given me a great experience. Some have given me a great story, too.
“Why He Won”
(swing) state: Ohio
I need to set up this small moment with a big moment that happened the night before—Election Night 2008.
For the first time, I was in a swing state on Election Day. And it made me feel as giddy as if I was on the playground kind of swing.
I’d arrived in Cleveland the Sunday before. A fleet of supersized white vans dominated the motel parking lot. Each of them was marked with exuberant red and blue slogans supporting Barack Obama. I soon learned that students from Morehouse College in Atlanta had driven the vans up to try to swing Ohio their way.
On Election Night, a bunch of the students had gathered in the motel lobby to watch the returns. I happened to be there when it was announced that Obama had won Ohio.
The students, of course, erupted with joy—the next closest swing state could’ve heard them. I felt like I was witnessing history on a deeper level than I would’ve if I had been home.
It wasn’t just because I was the only white person in the room. It was also because I was the only non-campaigner in the room, the only outside observer to their profound sense of accomplishment, which was nonetheless dwarfed by their profound sense of optimism.
I gestured to the TV and said (inadequately) to the student nearest to me, “That’s because of you.” We’ll never know exactly how many votes they influenced, but I like to believe that it was this particular group that pushed Ohio to blue. It reminds me of that Margaret Mead quotation that is some variation on this: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
Now to the school visit moment. The next morning, I was standing in the gym of an elementary school. As kids were coming in and filling up the floor, row by row from front to back, two third grade boys sitting two paces from me got my attention.
“Did you know that Barack Obama was elected and he’s our first black president?” the white boy said to me.
I smiled and nodded, but before I could speak, the black boy did. And his response was far wiser than whatever mine was going to be. “Yes,” he said, “but that’s not why he won.”
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