At first glance, Mr. and Mrs. E. were a surprising couple, he a 6 foot 5 inch math and science teacher, she a petite English teacher who with the help of heels might barely have been close to 5 feet tall. Mrs. E. loved words, she loved the literature we studied, the short stories, the plays, the novels, and especially the poetry. More than any other teacher I had in high school, she made us write our own words, our own thoughts and ideas. We wrote essays, we wrote short stories, we wrote plays, and of course we wrote poetry. Writing was hard for me, and writing poetry was especially hard. It was probably the hardest work I ever did in high school, but like the rest of my class, I came to regard Mrs. E. as one of my favorite teachers. Over the long term, somewhat reluctantly and very gradually, I came to a certain degree of understanding and respect for poetry.
So as I watched Amanda Gorman recite her poem “The Hill We Climb” at last week’s inauguration ceremony, the powerful emotional impact that I experienced surprised me. Of course, in retrospect, it wasn’t just the words, it was also the time and the place, that the words were authored and performed by a young black woman only 14 days after angry mobs chanting words like “Hang Mike Pence” and “Stop the Steal” had spread death and destruction inside our nation’s capital. But the words were beautiful, recited with passion and with a sense for the power of the moment. Recalling my own struggles with poetry, I found it stunning that those words could be composed and delivered by a 22-year-old. There are lines I’ve returned to again and again, lines like these:
“The hill we climb
If only we dare
It's because being American is more than a pride we inherit,
it's the past we step into
and how we repair it
We've seen a force that would shatter our nation
rather than share it
Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy
And this effort very nearly succeeded”
The founding fathers of our country understood the power of words, and in the First Amendment enshrined freedom of speech as one of the most important requirements for true democracy. I’m sure that the lawyers are already deftly polishing their courtroom arguments interpreting the chants of the mob as nothing more than citizens exercising their right to free speech, and justifiably so for many in the crowd who chose peaceful protest over destructive and deadly actions.
So the arguments will continue over the boundaries of free speech and when it strays too far and becomes incitement to destructive and deadly actions. Some will say that they don’t know how to define hate speech, but they know it when they hear it. The arguments will go on and on, so at the end of the day, it’s really up to each one of us individually to choose the words that matter to us. Will we choose words of hate and violence or the words of the poets? Will we choose the words of the mob or the words that Jesus taught us:
"Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself" (Matthew 22:37-39)
For my part, the words that matter to me are the words of Jesus, and the words of the young poet self-described as a “skinny black girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother.” Thank you Amanda Gorman; and thank you Mrs. E. for cracking open my eyes and my heart just a little to the possibilities and the power of poetry.