Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Power of the People

Yesterday I took the kids to see Bill Clinton speak.

I can feel about half of you reaching to clutch your pearls at the mere thought, and I want to assure you that this post isn't really about him. 

(But he's in it, there's your trigger warning.) 

I take them to any future historical figure I can get them in front of -- they've seen George W. Bush and Barack Obama and now Bill Clinton, and more minor but just as important characters like Bill Nye and Caroll Spinney aka Big Bird. 

Anyway, what was notable, especially after the disheartening aftermath of the debates, were the people in attendance with me. 

I had to take the kids out of school and drive an hour to get to the venue, with no guarantee of getting in. Everyone stood in an unmoving line for hours in the heat, anxious about whether or not their efforts would be wasted, and connections and conversations grew between strangers as the boredom became unbearable.

We were behind a middle-aged Indian couple. She impulsively bought me a Hillary button as she bought one for herself, and he and I bared our souls about our fast and hard fall during the real estate crash and our pride about where (and who) we are now that we've rebuilt. They discussed the difficulty of being mistaken for Muslim in the white-washed area they live in and refused to be interviewed on camera for fear their business would be destroyed by supporting the area's unpopular candidate. 

There were two men behind us, a white good ol' boy type and a younger black man, who listened patiently for hours as this guy told crazy tales about all of the people who had psychotic breaks from smoking pot (he knew a lot of them) and how the entire problem with the world today is that people won't stop breeding. Not only did this guy listen with respect, he actually engaged thoughtfully in this conversation. For hours. Because this other guy needed to talk. They had nothing in common other than their place in line.

There was a group of senior citizen friends in front of us who were passionately discussing the importance of solar energy. Every once in a while all of our newly formed pairs and trios would end up in one big group discussion -- maybe 10 or 12 of us talking about our hopes and fears and pasts and futures and things we think are important. 

We finally got to the front of the line...and the door closed in front of us. This happened with Obama too, we were the last four in, and only because some kind soul saw the exhausted look of one tired lady with three heartbroken kids next in line. 

This time we were six people back. I started preparing the kids to go home and everyone was saying that we had fun anyway and it was nice to meet each other. No one was angry, or even complaining. Then an official came out and said there was room for a few more and ushered us all inside and we gave each other thumbs up and joyful smiles and quick hand squeezes before dispersing into the crowd.  

The boys and I were crammed into the back of the room where an old burly Marine-type spotted us and told me the kids wouldn't be able to see. I told him we were lucky to be there and they'd catch it on someone's iPad or phone screen, like they had Obama. He shook his head and began tapping people on the shoulder and asking them to make room so these two little boys could see a past president. 

The crowd parted willingly -- unhesitant about giving up their places. We ended up about three rows back and he wanted to continue but the people in front were a black family with young adults who I had seen near the front of the line, and I knew they waited all day. I thanked him and said we were good and he went back to his place after checking with each child that he could see the podium from where we stood.

We listened to a variety of introductory speeches from local and democratic officials, murmuring to each other about interesting snippets. There was a long pause before the main event and music played on the speakers and a small impromptu dance party broke out -- there was no room to move but everyone was shaking their hips to Mary J. Blige and songs from The Get Down soundtrack, laughing with strangers at this interlude of silliness. Tired people of all races and sizes and ages and sexual orientations. 

The man behind me was a high school teacher from Alaska, rough around the edges, and asked if I told the kids' schools why I took them out for the day. He whole-heartedly approved of skipping for this.

I replied that I had kept it vague and said we had an appointment, especially since I knew one of my sons' teachers holds different political views. 

"How do you know that?" 

"I guess it comes up. A lot." 

"You know what? I was a teacher when Obama was running and I asked my kids who they thought I was voting for. It was split 50/50, and that's when I knew I was doing a great job. You have to be objective in that environment." 

I don't disagree, but my son has his own opinions that aren't in alignment with his teacher's, and seems pretty unaffected and unimpressed. And I'm full up on conflict, no more room at the inn. One can have his opinion and the other can think he's wrong. That's politics. He agreed with that too.

The lady next to me kept hitting everyone with her camera and bag, but she was older and sweet and so excited to be there. The crowd all shifted to give her room, automatically ducking out of her photos and ignoring her purse strikes and keeping up with her happy chatter. No one sighed or gave her side eye. She was envious that my kids have seen three presidents and wanted to hear about each experience. 

The speech began and once the initial excitement wore down, one of the men in the group in front of us noticed my boys and gave me a look and gesture that made it clear he wanted them to join his family in their prime location. I nodded yes and they shuffled around to let them into the front row, closing back around my sons, their short blond heads a striking contrast in their new group, the whole beautiful lot of them cheering together about diversity and the importance of education and treating people well.

The only bit of unpleasantness -- the ONLY BIT EVER in hours of heat and standing and waiting and lots of passionate people -- was that at one point someone in the back of the room screamed something rude, breaking the quiet focus of the crowd and interrupting the speech while also shocking and scaring everyone for a moment. 

People were stunned and quiet, and then commotion began as everyone turned around to look and the crowd began to rumble angrily. 

Clinton laughed in a casual way and said, "No, guys. Nah, don't be like that. They've all had a bad week. Besides, they even bought a Hillary shirt so they could sneak in. We should thank them for that."  

The crowd laughed quietly and turned back around, completely ignoring the jerk being dragged out in a headlock by Secret Service. The entire episode of unrest lasted less than 60 seconds. My kids barely even asked about it. 

The Alaskan had to leave early, and tapped me on the shoulder to wave goodbye and mouth, "Good luck. You're a good mom." I thanked him and said he was a good teacher.

At the end of the speech, Clinton exited the stage to give handshakes and the crowd surged forward. I didn't want to lose the boys but also didn't want them giving up their prime president hand-shaking territory. The mother of the family that had accepted them into their own turned around and gave me a nod, and I knew without words that she was not only going to help keep them safe but also do her best to help them keep their coveted spots.

And President Bill Clinton looked down at little kid and grabbed his hand through the books and pens and phones being shoved in his face, and then readjusted to give him a proper handshake. 

I was 6 or 8 people back, too far to even try to reach him and only worried about the kids anyway, when he leaned into the crowd and looked right at me with his arm outstretched, and I stretched out my hand AND SHOOK HIS. 

(And I unapologetically loved it, pearl clutchers.) 

I told the guy next to me that he was lucky to get a sneaky selfie, and he pointed out that the former president went out of his way to shake my hand. We looked through the pictures on his phone, exclaiming excitedly about the one they were both in. We agreed that we were both super lucky and that it had been a fun afternoon.

We stuck around to avoid the crush of the crowd making its exit, and some college-aged boys offered to take our photo with my phone. While we hung out, I eavesdropped on their playful, boyish banter. They were smart and happy, respectful and well-spoken. The kind of young men I'd like mine to grow up to be.

We left through a back door, curious about where it would take us, and ended up on a screened walkway. At that moment Clinton and the Secret Service (that should be a band name, guys) were walking around the back of the building to greet everyone out front. It was just us and them.

I shouted out to him and he looked up at us and smiled wide and waved. The kids were thrilled. (And I was too.) Secret Service maybe a little less so. 

As we exited, we saw our Indian friends and hugged them goodbye after exchanging business cards, and saw the annoying old guy talking the ear off of a protestor and wished him the best of luck, and told the happy lady with the camera that we hoped to see her at another presidential event. 

All day long, I never heard one hateful word about the other candidate. Incredulous disbelief and some amused talk about that Saturday Night Live skit, but the focus was on the positive. That was impressive in itself.

And yeah, it was awesome that we got to shake a president's hand. But what was more awesome were the people in that building. 

Goodness gracious, at a time that I needed to know (more than ever) that people are good, I ended up in a building chock full of extraordinarily good people. 

The universe has my back.

Bill Clinton said, "There is nothing wrong with America that can't be solved by what is right about America," and it felt wonderful to believe it thanks to the company I kept that day. 


Kim said...

Ashley, I absolutely loved hearing all about your experience with the boys!! I'm a Canadian and all the people I know are sincerely hoping that Hilary wins! Any other result will be horrifying!

Ashley said...

I wish we could block the rest of the world from even seeing us right now. Our current situation is strange, scary and confusing. Please tell the other Canadians that it's not that we're all stupid or hateful, it's just that the stupid and hateful are so very loud that they drown everyone else out.

Also, please stop winter so I can move there if this doesn't work out.

Unknown said...

I love this post!! I needed to hear this!

TH said...

Love this post! And, maybe lk would be willing to change the name of your band from Singing Sisters to Clinton and the Secret Service ;-)

Anonymous said...

Loved this post - loved that you are encouraging and enabling your boys to see the whole picture. I just came back from London, and everyone I spoke to used Brexit as an example of why to be very afraid of Trump and our election. Fortunately, I live in the Detroit area and Canada is very accessible - I have even started looking at housing prices. While I hope it won't come to that, Canadians are the most polite people, so I am sure I would feel welcomed.

Anonymous said...

Beautifully written. It was very moving.

Julie H said...

Loved this! What a great experience. My conservative husband (I was young when I married ;)) would have been complaining the whole damn time about the wait lol.