My friend Ebony and I (left) in DC for the inauguration
As I gather my thoughts to write a post about my inaugural weekend in DC, I thought I would share with everyone my entry in the Presidential Inaugural Committee’s Ticket to History contest. Although I was not chosen as one of the 10 winners, my essay remains relevant to my life’s issue: access and opportunity to quality education. The following is the question I had to answer as well as my response:
What does this inauguration mean to me?
Barack Obama inspired hope throughout his entire campaign–that same hope that I’ve felt calling and leading my footsteps throughout my entire life. My email signature quotes Dr. King saying “If you lose hope, somehow you lose the vitality that keeps life moving. You lose the courage to be, that quality that helps you go on in spite of it all. And so today I still have a dream.” Finally, just finally, someone was saying those same soul-jolting words with a microphone loud enough for not only this nation, but the world to hear. What is ironic is that very same hope I’ve carried throughout life is being doubted as I write this essay trying to rake my brain to articulate my thoughts into the perfect words to truly represent what this inauguration means to me. This inauguration means a sense of spiritual connection to the purpose that my forefathers penned and my ancestors built so many years ago. It is a revival for millions of Americans to awaken from a sort of governmental slumber and take hold of not only their destiny, but the destiny of our nation and world.
Hailing from small-town Bridgeton, NJ, I’ve treaded through the hallways of an elementary, middle, and high school filled with boundless potential. Future doctors, lawyers, teachers, psychologists, government officials, musical prodigies and the like were once sitting right beside me while learning the periodic table of the elements in high school biology, shouting cheers at my school’s pep rally, or singing Lion King at my fifth grade talent show. Nevertheless, through the life experiences and circumstances of my peers, their life opportunities were cut short each year we progressed to another grade level. While I pushed forward to fulfill my American dream, they were one-by-one turning to sell drugs to continue wearing the hottest label at the time or getting pregnant and becoming a mother while still a child. I often asked myself why was I chosen to lead a pathway of success while they unconsciously ran down a swirling path of oblivion? It was all unfair to me because I could see their light and future achievements wanting to burst out of their souls into a physical reality while they unknowingly allowed their future success to be gambled upon with quick, superficial rewards.
I soon began to realize that much of my academic success was attributed to the economic status of my parents. Although, I did not grow up in a wealthy home, my parents are middle income in a city where the median income for a family is an estimated $30,000. This distinction could not have been made any clearer when my father asked me a life-changing question during my eighth grade, middle school year. He asked me if I wanted to attend private school or my town’s only public high school the following year. His asking that question immediately brought to mind the negative reputation that continues to plague the school to this very day. Yet, I quickly replied very proudly that I wanted to attend Bridgeton High School. I knew that in making that decision that I would not be getting the best education, but I also knew that I could not leave my peers behind because I was their hope. My peers knew that “If anyone could make it out of Bridgeton, it would be Darla”. I knew that attending Bridgeton High School even with its subpar education, and even after as Vice President of the honor society I failed to pass the states math exit exam the first try, that it was beyond what I could receive at the school, but it was about the lives I could influence to reach beyond their present circumstance and to take a step up even without seeing the entire staircase.
It is my experience growing up in Bridgeton that led me to commit my life to fighting for educational reform so that all students, no matter where they grow up, have the same access and opportunities as any other student across this nation. Today, I am a 2008 Teach For America corp member in New Orleans, LA—one time zone, a 28-hour drive from the place I call home–working to rebuild schools here. I packed up this summer with three large suitcases and a dream to inspire my 3rd and 5th grade students the way I worked to empower my peers at home to challenge their thoughts and break down the walls of low expectations that people have instilled in them indirectly at a young age. As I talk to my students about the statistics people label them with, I’m reminded of the stigma that came along when people judged me when I said I was from “Bridgeton, NJ” like that meant I was any different than someone growing up in Cherry Hill, NJ or a wealthier northern suburb. Just like my peers needed hope, my students need hope—a hope that has is now reawakening in people all across America because of President-Elect Barack Obama and his family.
While I journeyed to New Orleans and I made my transition from undergrad to the full-fledged adult world, Barack Obama journeyed across this nation inspiring millions of people to join with him in reigniting the fire that’s within. He challenged us all to not only believe, but to also be the change. I volunteered during primary season for a weekend trip to South Carolina and had my first opportunity to make calls and canvass. I soon found myself also volunteering during the Washington, DC primary and attending a rally at American University to hear him speak. Although, I did not make it inside, I did get the opportunity to hear both Barack Obama and Ted Kennedy that day as they spoke briefly to those of us who were enthusiastically awaiting his arrival in an amphitheater outside. Barack Obama has what the French call “je ne sais quoi” that embodies his very being and allows him to connect in a way that touches the soul to dig deep and find hope. I knew that he had to become elected and did everything in my power to ensure that everyone not only knew his message, but also answered his call to action.
There comes a time in history when hope is reborn. This happened as the Europeans made their way to the new world to escape the religious persecution in England. It happened when President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. It happened when President Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” It happened when Dr. King said he has a dream. On January 20th hope will be reborn as Barack Obama takes his journey to the capital footsteps and takes that final oath. But hope will also be reborn when millions of people watch it on television. When those millions of people who journeyed to Washington, DC head to the airport and go home to different parts of the nation. It will be reborn as we each tell our story. It will also be reborn when I go back to New Orleans and tell my students of my journey. It will also be reborn when I go home and I talk to my friends and family about my experience. I will tell them how it represents how I always hoped for what the world could be and how the time is coming that we are taking steps closer to what we all know it can become. Thank God for President Barack Obama.