Democracy at Four Feet Tall
This morning I dropped my first grader off in front of our neighborhood elementary school at 8:15 am. I came back to pick him up at noon, right after lunch and loaded him into the car with his 3-year-old and 8-month-old brothers, wedged into our SUV beside the toddler I babysit on Thursdays. I had emailed his teacher the night before to give her the heads up that his education would be taking him outside the classroom walls today; he would be seeing democracy in action.
The ride to the free speech space on Iowa State University campus was as loud and animated as one might imagine, and unfolding all of these tiny humans into strollers and baby carriers in the freezing parking lot was not the smoothest ten minutes of my life. But with individually portioned snack baggies all things art possible.
Behind his glasses, my seven-year old’s eyes shone with bewilderment, despite the careful explanation I had given him last night while we made our signs together. It’s not every day that folks in our sleepy little Midwestern town gather to exercise our democratic rights, and I knew he remained befuddled about the whole thing. Portland or Austin, this is not. Central Iowa is about 90% white, a pocket of the country that prides itself on safety and homespun virtue. It’s all too easy to feel removed from injustice here, and even easier to fail to act against it.
But today that wasn’t the story; today we were rising up. And I needed my children to witness it.
After President Trump signed the executive order that would come to be known as the “travel ban”, three Iranian ISU scholars were unable to return to campus and countless other students and scholars were left with a bleak, uncertain future. As we walked around the handmade signs dotting the demonstration area, the deeply personal nature of the executive order hit me in new ways.
I looked left: "I’m banned from seeing my mom."
I looked right: "Now I have to choose between my family and school."
While the babies snuggled in and my preschooler ran wild, I knelt down at eye level with my oldest and explained the signs one by one. We talked again about the signs he had made – white gift boxes stapled together, red and black Sharpie etching misspelled words, precious offerings that read “Let Them In” and “Love Everybody” – and why the words we use always matter. He stood, four feet tall, and understood.
I’m always telling my children to use their words. If I’m honest, this is less because I’m a mature, pacifistic maternal figure and more because I hold genuine respect and concern for my eardrums. Still, words carry unmatched power. Most children know nothing of policy or terrorism or immigration reform but ask any child and he will tell you of words. Words break hearts and words heal hearts. If there is anything a human being of any age can understand, it is that.
Brown, black, and white-skinned college students admired the signs my son had made; the simple healing he carried in his small hands. Some took pictures on their phones and I made sure he noticed, because in order to keep using our words most of us need to know that someone is listening.
An hour later, as I drove back to his elementary school, the three tinies dozed off and my little reader looked thoughtfully out the window. “Mom, one sign said, ‘this is not okay’.”
I smiled sadly at him. “Do you think it’s okay?”
“No, it’s not.”
We kept our voices low, whether to stay the sleeping babies or out of reverence for the subject matter, I’m still not sure. I spoke of courts and judges, checks and balances, and the structure of government that makes our country just.
But most of all I spoke of words: words spoken and written and phoned in by millions of citizens, our voices rising high and loud and strong together. I told him that what we did today was small, so small, but that people all over the country were doing the very same thing. That, I told my son, is what makes things change. That is what makes America great. We are able to use our words, and we do.
If you want to blow a seven-year old’s mind, tell him he just did something that could get a man thrown in jail in another country. I watched his eyes widen a millimeter and his spine grow taller as he processed that new information, and we talked about the honor and responsibility of being a citizen of democracy. As we walked back through the doors of our neighborhood elementary school, I kissed him goodbye to go play with his little United Nations of classmates.
“Be brave and kind,” I whispered -- like I always do.