Happy Birthday, America

“So, tell me about your country. What’s it like?”

“Oh, Ms. Napper, my country is very good. In my city, there is water we  can drink. And there are wires that carry electricity to the houses!”

<unsure what I was expecting, but it wasn’t that!>

“But I always dreamed about someday coming to America… And now I am here!!”

One of the cool parts of being an ESL teacher is getting to welcome new families to the United States. Being part of the unofficial welcome wagon.

I’ve been able to listen to kids say their very first complete sentence in English. Then later, an entire story. I’ve sat next to them while they used a computer for the first time. I’ve introduced them to April Fools pranks. I’ve hosted their first viewing of the Wizard of Oz. I’ve taught them the gist of baseball. (One of the sportsiest things I’ve ever done!)

Some of the firsts are less fun…. I’ve helped brand new arrivals get through their first lockdown-drill-in-case-there’s-ever-a-shooting-here-at-school. I’ve reassured kids freaking out about their first experience with standardized testing. I’ve helped them grapple with being called a terrorist for the first time.

With all the time I’ve spent introducing kids to their new country and culture, you’d think I would have found an answer to my own existential America question a long time ago. But, I didn’t. I just kept wondering.

My question is about the phrase “proud to be an American.” What does it even mean? Am I proud to be an American? What does it mean if I am? What does it mean if I’m not?

I’ve always been grateful to be born and raised in America. I know that’s given me a lot of privileges and opportunities that I wouldn’t necessarily have in other places. I’ve appreciated the contributions of everyone who came before me in American history and made the country what it is–including soldiers, yes, but also scientists, lawyers, political leaders, activists, artists, etc, etc!

But that’s gratitude.That’s different from pride, right? I take pride in my accomplishments. I’m proud of things I’ve achieved, and work I’ve done, and anything that I’ve given my best effort… but being an American? I was born into that. It was happenstance. I’ve had a hard time wrapping my mind around the idea of being proud of a privilege that was just handed to me without doing anything to deserve it.

This year, though, I think I’ve started to understand. Like the fish that doesn’t understand “wet” until it leaves the water, now that I’ve lost my pride in being an American, I’m beginning to see what I once had.

This year my kids studied “The New Colossus,” the poem found at the Statue of Liberty. I know we’ve all heard the “send me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses…” lines a million times. As we should–they’re beautiful and speak to my soul. But what about this part, describing the statue?

“A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world wide-welcome…”

For many around the world, America has been a shining beacon in the darkness. Whether we truly deserve the role or not, we’ve given hope to struggling souls. Like the sweet child (now an adult) I quoted at the top of this post, growing up with the dream of coming to America, where opportunities and a future would open up for her. We’ve offered a home to all kinds of “exiles.” We’ve offered the world the American Dream, the idea that a person can work hard and improve their individual circumstances. We’ve offered the American Experiment, the idea that democracy works and we can govern ourselves (kinda). These things might be more of a reality for some and more of a myth for others, but even just the ideals had power in their own right.

America has stood as a beacon of hope on the world stage. And I have taken pride in being a tiny little particle of that light. It was a worthy, ongoing cause, and I believed in its inherent good. I was proud to help keep it moving forward.

I was proud to be part of a nation that proclaimed and at least attempted to live by values closely matching my own. Freedom. Equality. Equity. Unity. Humanitarianism. I embraced these and many other American values, and could hold my head high under a flag that represented my own beliefs.

I would even say I was proud of generally using my freedoms responsibly. To better myself and serve others, without stepping on others’ freedoms. Having the privileges of being born an American doesn’t make me special, but what I do with those privileges does reflect my character. Without consciously realizing it, I took some pride in that.

So here I am, finally working out my definition of being “proud to be an American,” a little too late to enjoy it.

Now I just feel ashamed of America, of what we’ve done to it.

Maybe it was inevitable. Maybe all that American pride was always misplaced. Our country was founded on genocide and built with slavery. We never repented of those sins; we just continued morphing them into different means of the same oppression. We also have never properly valued education, preferring to raise a population in blissful, unquestioning ignorance to the world around us. So, really, how long could we keep convincing anyone that we’re the good guys?

Still, right or wrong, I always believed we were riding the slow train of progress towards “liberty and justice for all.” There’s no reason to believe that’s true now. We’re facing the opposite direction, and picking up speed.

Instead of Lady Liberty shining her beacon of hope for the world to see, she’s giving the world the middle finger. With the entire world mad at us, I’m just praying they find a way to punish us and save the world from our fascist leadership, without actual warfare. (I imagine that same prayer has been coming out of the Middle East for a long time, though, and that’s never stopped us, so…I realize I’m asking for a miracle that defies karma.)

Our freedom is being pulled out from under us so fast that it makes the head spin.

  • Endless attacks on legitimate news sources are quickly limiting our freedom of the press, which in turn limits our freedom of speech. #fascism101
  • If the attempts to defund Medicaid succeed, then I completely lose my freedom. The Supreme Court didn’t decide that I have a right to live freely in the community until 1999. If that is taken away again so soon, how many generations do you think it’ll take to get it back?
  • With it so unsafe to be Muslim in America, freedom of religion is little more than lip service. The irony being that religious freedom is most intensely threatened by the religious. Our least religious president in history has tapped into the most bigoted and intolerant of Christians’ hearts, and is fueling their hate and fear to attack another religion… All eastern religions, to some extent. These aren’t people who can tell the difference between a Muslim, a Hindu, and a Sikh.
  • Remember the lies told about how we aren’t targeting all immigrants for deportation, just serious criminals? Tell that to the families that are being ripped apart over the crime of driving a car, the crime of being a student, or the crime of dropping a child off at school. Here in the United States, they remain “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
  • The same surveillance technology that is being used to target immigrants, is being used to monitor all of us. Any sense of privacy we enjoy, is a delusion. There’s no freedom from Big Brother.
  • The administration’s tax plan will further widen the gap between those economically on top, and the rest of us. That limits all of our freedom as individuals, and threatens our nation as a whole.
  • Brutal attacks on our education system promote widespread ignorance in our people. It’s much easier to manipulate, control, and exploit an uneducated populace. When people can’t even see their freedom being taken away, they don’t fight back.

Who do we blame for this shameful failure to live our American values? Do we blame Trump? Do we blame the corrupt party leaders that are pulling his puppet strings? Do we blame Russia? Yes, of course, we blame them all. But if democracy is working at all, then we have to mostly blame ourselves. We did this. The one American value that I’ve never been able to get behind is the heavy focus on individualism. Maybe that’s what got us here. So busy focusing on ourselves, we forgot to take care of our country.

Happy birthday, America. I’m sorry we forgot to bring a present.

One thought on “Happy Birthday, America”

  1. You got it all right sadly. It’s hard to celebrate but keep talking sister, because you thoughts and words are clear and you clarify what most of us don’t have the clarity of thought or the ablility to express.

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