Why speak up?

I am running for school board because I feel a responsibility to speak up. This will take some explaining, including a walk down memory lane, if you will indulge me, but I promise I will get to the point before too much of your time is wasted.

The bicentennial of the United States was a big deal when I was in high school. I graduated in 1977, and of course the bicentennial was July 4, 1976. There were all kinds of celebrations all year long. With good reason! The Declaration of Independence—or as it could equally well be called, the Declaration of Equality [<== that’s a link you can click to read a related post on my personal blog]—was one of the most important defining documents in the modern history of the world. It set forth principles that set the course for a new nation that would go on to become a beacon and bulwark of democracy. As long as the United States endures, we will never be done with the task of reflecting on that document, and on how well we are living out the principles that it set forth, and on pressing onward to live up to them more fully. We must remind ourselves of these principles—centrally, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, and that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”—by speaking of them.

All men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, and that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Back in 1975, in the run-up to the bicentennial, various organization sponsored speech contests focused on the bicentennial. As a high school student who took a speech class in tenth grade and participated in scholastic debate, I entered such contests. It was the most natural thing in the world. My upbringing was centered in family, church, and school, and when I say “centered” I mean that these three things were basically my entire life. Two foci in all three of these domains were: God and country.

Our family life centered in church; we spent much of our time and energy there, and what we did in church was reinforced by what we did at home. But my family also took a lot of vacations together, and my parents made sure that our family vacations included many, many visits to historic sites connected with the history of our nation. The public schools that I attended also took us kids on so many visits to historic sites. In Virginia that wasn’t hard to do! Jamestown, Williamsburg, Mount Vernon, Monticello, Washington DC, numerous battlefields, Appomattox Court House—so many sites were within easy day-trip distance. Abraham Lincoln parked his ship in the James River and conferred with his generals within a few hundred yards of my piano teacher’s house, and the Crater (as in Battle of the Crater) was a few miles in the other direction from my house. And in classes, documents like the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Federalist Papers, the Virginia Declaration of Rights were repeatedly set before us. The schools took very seriously their job of not only teaching us reading, writing, and arithmetic but also forming us as citizens, as patriotic Americans. So between family, church, and school, my attention was constantly being directed to God and country.

Sometimes distinctions between those two things might have got a little blurred. Of course there are important connections, as in that phrase involving “their creator” in the Declaration of Independence. But it’s just as important to understand and honor the distinctions between God and country as it is to honor both. In fact, it is impossible to honor either properly if you get the two confused. I think my parents and teachers did a pretty good job of making sure we knew the difference.

But as I was saying, I was magnetically and irresistibly drawn into the patriotic speech contests in the run-up to the bicentennial. I just dredged back into the archives of my hometown newspaper and came up with a couple of memories:

Hopewell (VA) News, February 25, 1975. That’s me, second from the left, and my big trophy for being the Voice of Democracy winner for my high school. I had hair then. And don’t you love that tie-and-jacket combination? This contest was sponsored by the local VFW post.

Hopewell (VA) News, December 15, 1975. The Bicentennial Patrick Henry Oratorical Contest was sponsored by Governor Godwin and the General Assembly (which is what the lower house of the state legislature is called in Virginia). Again, I was the winner for my high school. I’m pretty sure that in addition to the prepared speech we were called on to make an impromptu speech, but I like how this article calls it umpromptu. I’m sure there was a fair amount of umming going on, despite the speech teacher’s best efforts to prevent it. I was apparently a pretty good ummer back then.

OK, one more, from the following year: Hopewell (VA) News, February 12, 1776. This time the contest sponsor was the local post of the American Legion. That’s me next to my father, a US Navy veteran (enlisted when he graduated from high school in 1944) who never joined either the VFW or the American Legion—too busy with church. My father and mother were great encouragers; they didn’t push me to enter these contests, but they certainly made it clear that they were fully with me.

That walk down memory lane was no doubt more absorbing for me than for you. Sorry about that. Thanks for sticking with me. The point I wanted to make was this: I was raised to spend significant time thinking about this country and its founding values. And I was taught and encouraged to do a fair amount of speaking up about this country and its founding values.

All this is still inside me, deeply embedded, and I don’t know whether it’s just reaching a certain age, or whether it has to do with what I see and hear going on all around us—I suspect it’s both, but more the latter—but lately I have been feeling a strong compulsion once again to speak up. To take seriously the responsibility of a citizen who is capable of using words (which is how I have spent my whole life, training to be a preacher and professor and then working for decades as a book publisher) to be a “voice of democracy,” as those VFW speech contests were called.

You see, I am firmly persuaded that what we say matters. It matters what we say to each other. It matters what we say about each other. It matters what we say about our country, and about events in our country and in the world. What we say—what we are taught to say in school, what we instinctively say during the whole course of our lives in every interaction with our fellow humans, with our fellow Americans, and here in this township with our fellow Caledonians—both expresses and shapes how we feel about ourselves, about each other, about our community, and about our country. And it shapes what we do. “Talk is cheap,” they say. Well, it had better not be cheap. We had better treat it as precious. The right to free speech was purchased for us by others at a high price over many generations, and we had better not waste it on trivialities, on misrepresentations, exaggerations, lies, stupid fights, and petty, partisan disparagement of each other and of the people in our communities who are doing the hard work of upholding and preserving our democratic values and our democratic way of life.

The public schools exist partly, and maybe most importantly, to form our young people into citizens.

The public schools have a role to play. The public schools exist partly, and maybe most importantly, to form our young people into citizens. Our young people must learn many things. But in and throughout all the other things they must learn, they must be learning that all people are in principle—according to a law that we did not invent but which our founders recognized as being transcendent and fundamental—equal. That all people (even and especially if they are different from us in important respects) have the right to live their lives. That all people have the right to be free, and to pursue happiness. Our young people must learn that truth-telling, decency, respect, and under certain circumstances self-sacrifice are required of them. They must learn that understanding their own needs and impulses and emotions is important, and that understanding the needs and impulses of others is equally important; knowing these things will help them find solutions to all kinds of problems. They must learn courage. They must learn generosity. And they must learn that truthfulness and generosity entail speaking well of each other, and speaking often of the things that unite us, and not using speech to confuse and agitate and divide and inflame. They must understand that if we do not learn and practice these things, we are not going to have a country anymore.

And they must learn these things from us. They must learn these things from their parents, to be sure. But they must also learn them from their teachers in school. And these things must be demonstrated, exemplified, and upheld in every public conversation involving members of the Board of Education of Caledonia Community Schools. This is what leadership looks like. This is what we need. This is what I want to do.

When it comes to building and preserving our community and our country, speaking up is not enough. In addition to words, we need action. But one of the most fundamental acts is speech. Speech is where it begins. Well, everything begins in the heart. But what is in the heart flows out in speech before speech generates action.

Speech can build up. Or speech can tear down. We have had enough of speaking down. It is time to speak up.

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