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Simple Gifts


I live and teach on the edge of Washington, D.C. We didn’t have school today and many of my students are attending inaugural events. I will be curious to hear what the kids have to say tomorrow. Our impressions may be vastly different, but when I remember today, this is what I will recall:

A chamber quartet playing a Quaker hymn made famous by an American composer. In case you are not familiar with the words:

"'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free,
'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,"

And there, on the mall stood well over a million people, not bumping and grinding to a rock concert or cheering for their team, but listening quietly to the gentle harmony of a cello, a violin, a clarinet, and a piano--American music played by three immigrants from Israel, China, Venezuela and an African American for the inauguration of a biracial President. “We the people of the United States..” are an immigrant nation and while the sea of faces on the Mall today may look different from those of the Founders, almost all of us are, or descend from, “come heres” from somewhere else.

"And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
'Twill be in the valley of love and delight."

There were concerns that there would be mass confusion, unruliness, rioting, and acts of terrorism, but more than a million people stood in the cold, being patient and polite. Official handshakes, ceremonial hugs, waves and nods among the dignitaries. Casual embraces, high fives, fist bumps and citizens walking hand in hand as they hiked back across the bridge and into Virginia where their buses were parked at the Pentagon.

"When true simplicity is gain’d,"

But those values upon which our success depends — hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism — these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths.

"To bow and to bend we shan't be asham'd,"

What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility — a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.

"To turn, turn will be our delight
'Till by turning, turning we come round right."

Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.

As I write, the new President and First Lady are still making the rounds of the Inaugural Balls, but tomorrow Barack Obama has to get down to business.

We do too. Just think, somewhere out there tomorrow morning a future President of the United States will be sitting in someone’s classroom.

It could be my room.

It could be yours.


Wow. My job has never seemed as momentous as it did when I read those final lines. Thank you for the reminder of the value of what we do everyday. Even if none of my students become president, they will all go on to do important things for which I can help prepare them.

Oh, Susan. Just when I thought I was done crying...

The "Air and Simple Gifts" moment was the highlight for me, too.

I'm going to tuck this piece into the Carnival of Education, because it's perfect. And if it shows up again next week--it deserves to be linked again and again.

Susan and Nancy:

I don't usually comment on our blogs (except when there's a problem) but have to share this: I live in D.C. and took my family down to the Capitol the day before the inauguration. (My kids are young so we didn't think we could handle the day-of crowds.) While we were standing on the lawn out beneath the steps, Yo Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, et al.--although we didn't know who it was at the time--began rehearsing their piece. Let me tell you, it was indescribably beautiful. I mean, people just stopped in their tracks to listen. My wife and I both got the chills. And seriously, I remember thinking: Wow, what a great country.

Anthony Rebora, Managing Editor

I realize that you project onto the presidency a shiny example of what success is for your students. I am glad you invest so much in the kids. But do you really think the presidency is something to aspire to?

Most presidents lie to get into office and then do a sharp reversal on promises made. George Bush Senior said "No new taxes". George Junior said "No nation building" but here the USA is- killing innocent people and destroying peace in Iraq and Afghanistan. Wilson ran on keeping the USA out of WWI but then lied and lied and lied to get the USA into it. FDR said that Hoover spent too much!

The truth is that today's American president oversees a vast empire mired in debt, boondoggles, lies, fascist economic policies, human rights violations, and murderous exploits across the globe.

I challenge today's teachers to see through the political magic and realize that this new emperor, as genial and ameliorating as he seems, is wearing no clothes.

Well, Susan, I was weepy all day on Tuesday...finally got myself together enough to be functional...and there you go making me cry again.

It's a beautiful post, and a reminder of the most wondrous of days. I hope we hold this feeling for years and years to come.

I cried during the Inaugural ceremony when the quarter performed "Simple Gifts" and I cried again reading your blog. Thank you for putting into words what I've been feeling and couldn't articulate.

In his powerful need to condemn, Reason overlooks a central role of the good teacher -- to help children find hope in our ideals (however short we fall in achieving them) and come to believe that they can act to improve the human condition. Otherwise, why bother to teach at all?

I thought the song and the cultural diversity sent a strong message to everyone. Of course I love that song and the lyrics anyway so I'm glad it was chosen! Thanks for reminding me why I even like it more now.

Thank you, Susan, for such an inspirational comment on Simple Gifts. As one of the million + on the mall that day, I'll always cherish the sights of diversity, the sounds of silence, the touch of shoulders to shoulders. We really were quite simply, one, in that moment.

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Recent Comments

  • Marsha: Thank you, Susan, for such an inspirational comment on Simple read more
  • Pat: I thought the song and the cultural diversity sent a read more
  • John Norton: In his powerful need to condemn, Reason overlooks a central read more
  • Gail Ritchie: I cried during the Inaugural ceremony when the quarter performed read more
  • Cindi Rigsbee: Well, Susan, I was weepy all day on Tuesday...finally got read more




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