This is the piece I've been afraid to write.
To be expected to put into words how much someone means to you is never easy. Whether at a wedding, a retirement party, a momentous birthday or even a funeral, words often fail to do justice with the gravity and importance of the occasion. There are certain events in life that go beyond words and when presented with these situations the best one can hope for is to at least try to convey the intended meaning as best as possible. In the end, people often receive high praise for their words of tribute but for the perfectionists among us, there remains a persistent nagging that we could have done something more. Unrealistic as it may be, it is a feeling that one can't help but internalize. When speaking so positively of someone else, one is inevitably made to compare this person to themselves and this comparison often leads to a feeling of inadequacy. It may seem unfair, but it is human nature to place yourself in that other person's shoes and reflect on their life as if it were your own. It is this reflective part of the writing process that can bring out a person's humbleness and humility, especially when the subject of one's writing is a person of tremendous character.
And that is why for me, it is so hard to write about President Barack Obama.
Because this is, in essence, part celebration, part retirement, and part eulogy all wrapped into one. Over the course of the coming weeks and months, there will be many pieces celebrating the successes of the Obama Administration. There will also be reflective pieces, comparing the promises of the Obama Administration to the harsh reality of the political climate of the time. And lastly, there will be several pieces that will sound like a eulogy in that they will deal with death: not the death of a man but the death of a particular era in our nation's history that has been unlike any other. President Barack Obama meant many things to many different people. The true impact of his work will not be felt for a generation or more and even then it will be hard to measure. The only way to understand Barack Obama is through our own stories and it is through those stories that we are finally able to piece together exactly what it was like being alive during his presidency. For myself, my own personal story would not be possible without President Barack Obama.
Because for me, President Obama has been a towering figure in my life and has been central to my personal and professional development. In the fall of 2008, I was not overly political. I watched a handful of debates. I didn't do any volunteering for any candidates and I don't even recall receiving any calls from the state Democratic Party, meaning I was not even on their radar. My days consisted of doing what second-year teachers do best: barely keeping my head above water. I was busy working with 120 seventh grade students during the day while grading their work and planning their lessons at night. What little free time I had consisted of me spending one night during the week doing bar trivia and two hours on the weekend venturing down to the local lake and running the trails. Despite being a social studies teacher, politics was the furthest thing from my mind.
Yet there was something unique about the 2008 election. For the first time in my life, I took an actual interest in not only a presidential election but about the politics and process behind the election. When a colleague asked me why I was voting for Barack Obama I told him it was because I wanted to see if a president could actually bring change to the established politics of Washington, DC. When Sarah Palin was announced as John McCain's running mate, I immediately went to a liberal co-worker, smiled, and told her that Barack Obama had just won the election. On November 4th, I drove to my local North Carolina polling location and proudly cast my first in-person vote for president of the United States. That night, my roommates and I watched in silence as a skinny man with a funny name was elected as the 44th president of the United States. I myself did not cry but seeing so many people shed tears of joy let me know that this election night was something different that my 23-year-old self was just beginning to understand.
Over the next four years, I was able to understand my own personal journey through Barack Obama's own story. I bought and read Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope and I saw that, although I was in challenging situations, these situations were nothing new. While moving across the country to pursue my master's degree and then finding work at two separate charter schools in San Diego, I ended up teaching low-income students, many of whom were undocumented immigrants. Like Barack Obama, I was able to see these people as living, breathing human beings who were caught in a broken immigration system. These students weren't simply milking the system as some people would have you believe, but instead, they were working hard for a better life for themselves, all while living in the shadows. Reading Barack Obama's life story and seeing how he fought for these students as president inspired me to want to do more in ways that would impact my students' lives beyond the classroom.
By the fall of 2012, I had four years of teaching experience under my belt but I still was not involved politically. I had begun to check the news daily through a news app that aggregated news but I still wasn't engaged at the state or local level. Leading up to the November election, I had bookmarked a website by a man named Nate Silver, who was tracking the various state polls. I was disheartened after President Obama's first debate performance against Mitt Romney. I laughed out loud when Joe Biden called out Paul Ryan's "malarkey" at the vice-presidential debate. I dropped a figurative microphone when President Obama ended the second debate by referencing Mitt Romney's 47% remark. I couldn't help but smile when Republican pundits panned Mitt Romney's performance in the third debate. By the time election night came around, I was cautiously optimistic. By 7 PM, I had multiple computers lined up with the TV on and a six-pack on the table. My roommate casually asked if this was like my Super Bowl. I simply smiled and nodded.
It wasn't until after 2012 that I began to personally feel the positive impact of President Obama's policies. Starting in 2014, I briefly worked for a nonprofit doing telephone fundraising and with this new job, I was unable to receive employer-backed health care for my first three months of employment. Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, I was able to get private insurance and when I later left the job, I didn't have to worry about losing my employer-backed coverage which gave me an invaluable peace of mind. I also saw how important raising the minimum wage was as the simple increase ended up positively impacting the lives of our employees, helping to provide them with a better life for themselves and their families. This simple $1.75 raise in the state of California might not have seemed like a lot, but it made a world of difference for the people in our office.
Yet even when President Obama's policies didn't personally affect me, I saw how they impacted those close to me. In June of 2015, when our nation finally recognized gay marriage nationwide, I saw tears in the eyes of a good friend of mine who would be able to one day marry the person that she loves. I myself got emotional when another friend posted on her Facebook wall that her one-month-old son would never know a world where marriage equality wasn't the law of the land. A year later, I again took to social media to see my friends with Cuban roots share their joy in knowing that one day they would be able to freely travel to the land of their birth. And most recently, my very own father was able to retire thanks largely to President Obama's sound fiscal policies that hemorrhaged the bleeding of the 2008 financial crisis and allowed the stock market to recover, giving retirees like my own father the confidence needed to finally hang 'em up after forty plus years in the workforce.
So having experienced all this in my own life, I decided to go to bat for President Obama. Starting in the summer of 2013, I began blogging about politics as I found that the man in the Oval Office was not getting the credit he deserved. I wrote in defense of President Obama's policies and came across others who shared my views. In the fall of 2015, I had just left my job at the nonprofit and my top priority was doing whatever I could to help establish and maintain President Obama's legacy in the years to come. When Vice-President Joe Biden announced he would not be running for president and Hillary Clinton began discussing the importance of maintaining President Obama's policies in the second Democratic debate, I knew that a Hillary Clinton presidency was the only way to ensure not only those policies but also the legacy that Barack Obama had built. Over the next 13 months, I wrote a series of articles, drove 500 miles to prep for and work on the Nevada caucus, and served as a field organizer in Florida all to help make sure that President Barack Obama's accomplishments and achievements would last for generations to come.
On November 8th my world was ripped apart.
At 8 PM, I sat in a hotel room in Jacksonville, Florida after having knocked on 150 doors for the fourth day in a row. A friend who had worked on the Obama campaign in 2008 called me and told me how proud she was of my efforts and to enjoy the events of the evening. I toasted her with my solo cup of rum and coke, the chosen celebratory drink of the night. Unfortunately, this joy would be short-lived as the immediate returns were coming in and something seemed off. The Florida early vote lead for Hillary Clinton had evaporated. Ohio was called early for Donald Trump. North Carolina was leaning Trump by a fairly comfortable margin. Pennsylvania was too close to call. Virginia, Virginia, was too close to call. As the results came in over the next three hours, the unbreakable "blue wall" gradually crumbled and toppled over. Florida went red. North Carolina was called for Trump. Georgia stayed solidly red, despite there being some hope there. By this point, my solo cup had been refilled a handful of times. The next few hours became a blur. All I remember is the headline at 2 A.M. announcing Donald Trump as our next president. With this news, I walked outside in a drunken haze, and just wandered down the street, balling my eyes out. I kicked a Trump/Pence sign that had the audacity to be in my path. I got back to my hotel room, wishing it all to be a very vivid nightmare.
Unfortunately, the nightmare was very real.
And yet, over these last two months, I've never been prouder to call Barack Obama my president. Despite the possibility of his legacy being undermined by the incoming administration, President Obama has handled himself with the same dignity and grace as the very first day he came into office. His words still ring on high on hope at a time when many people are feeling hopeless. His reverence for the constitution has been on full display and, like always, he has continued to be the adult in the room. Along with his wife, Michelle, President Obama has left large shoes to fill that clearly won't be filled by the incoming administration but that may not be filled for a generation or more. His work in the White House may be nearing an end, but his work on behalf of social justice issues will continue for years to come. He will recruit and train a new generation to follow in his footsteps.
And I, for one, will be there. Fired up and ready to go. Because we, as a nation, have come too far to turn back now. There has been too much progress made to stop now and there is work left to do. President Obama is fond of reciting Martin Luther King, Jr.'s famous phrase that "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." Right now, we are facing an upshot of the arc that seems to be bending away. But it will bend back. Maybe not today. Maybe not these next four years. But it will right itself. If there is one thing, just one thing, that President Barack Obama has meant to me it has been his unwavering hope in the American people. He has believed in me through thick and thin and I have come to feel the same way about him. Wherever life takes President Barack Obama, I will be there fighting with him. For a man who has meant so much to me, I owe it to him to help in any way possible.
It's the least I can do.
This is the piece I've been afraid to write.