AUGUST 19, 2016
MRS. GAUNCH, my sixth grade teacher, got me into college. She was the inspiration for my all-important application essay. The question was the usual open-ended “tell us about an important moment in your life” sort of query. My answer described the morning after the National Guard killed four students at Kent State for protesting the Vietnam War. On that day, Tuesday, May 5, 1970, just before we said the pledge of allegiance to the flag, Mrs. Gaunch explained to us that “they should have shot them all.”
I won’t say that my pigtailed hair stood on end, but I was shocked. Hatred pulsed through Richmond, Virginia, that spring and apparently Mrs. Gaunch was in its grip. Another of her concerns was being kidnapped. She told us that she and Mr. Gaunch had a secret code word that they’d say on the telephone if she was ever taken by terrorists. This information fascinated me. Mostly I wondered why terrorists would want Bertha Gaunch. I thought they might be almost as scared of her steel-blue beehive and fierce manner as I was. I imagined them standing a bit shakily in the background, letting her command the telephone to convey her precious signal. But what then, I wondered. What would Mr. Gaunch do? Would that code word tell him where she was? Would he be able to recover Mrs. Gaunch and bring her back to our class?
I didn’t ask then, as I would now, who these unnamed terrorists might be. Surely in Mrs. Gaunch’s mind they were “liberals” or “radicals” or “black people” or maybe just “them.” Out in the lily-white Henrico County suburbs, there weren’t a lot of “them.” It was hard to know who to be afraid of as my brother, a year behind me at Tuckahoe Elementary School, and I pedaled our Stingrays through empty suburbia.
Meanwhile, in downtown Richmond, something important was happening. The first Republican governor since Reconstruction, A. Linwood Holton Jr., was sending his children from the governor’s mansion to the local schools, and the local schools were black. I envied Anne Holton and her siblings Tayloe and Woody, and didn’t understand why my family wasn’t doing the same thing. After all, my father, a Democrat, had been elected attorney general at the same time as Anne’s father had been elected governor. Yet when we moved from Virginia’s beautiful mountains and my completely integrated (if tiny) elementary school, the campaign talk of equal rights seemed entirely forgotten. The plea, of course, was “good schools.” I know now that this phrase was itself a code. I know now that at the same time my parents were using it, Hillary Clinton was bravely exposing “good” for what it meant in Arkansas, going to court to fight the white-flight schools there.
What was this “good” education that we were supposedly receiving at Tuckahoe Elementary? We were being taught that we should feel embattled and fearful, that murdering peaceful citizens was not only justified but patriotic. My brother, even at 10 more observant and politically astute than I was, put our shared disquiet into words one evening. We were home while my parents were out being “VIPs,” a phrase my mother loved and used repeatedly. He came quietly into my room and what he said was this: our family has changed; we don’t stand for what I thought we stood for.
Other people noticed this too about our family. At one pig-roast-and-political-rally, with the smell of barbeque and smoke in the air, a man abruptly told me that my father wasn’t half the man my grandfather was. My grandfather had also dedicated his life to public service, working with the World Council of Churches and getting elected to the Virginia House of Delegates before running for governor and senator unsuccessfully, just as my father would do. But he was remembered for his civil rights efforts beginning in the 1930s and his work in the 1950s against the Byrd machine’s “massive resistance” in the schools and lunch counters of Charlottesville. He had also married a woman with a full career of her own, a journalist, historian, and part of the Roosevelt administration. My pig-roast friend’s comparison between my father and my grandfather stung. Not yet a teenager, I felt defensive and disarmed. Looking back, I still think he was unkind, but he was also right in upholding that higher standard. I have a lot of friends who are like him, fellow Bernie Sanders supporters.
But now, I’m with her. Hillary Clinton has my vote and my support not just strategically against Trump, but also gratefully and humbly for her lifetime of hard work, her grace under bruising publicity, and her tenacity. And also perhaps, in my parochial heart, for choosing a running mate from Virginia, half of a couple both dedicated to public service: Anne Holton and Tim Kaine.
I grew up with parents who sometimes talked the talk, but didn’t walk the walk. They didn’t live their lives stressing the “service” part of “public service.” My brother and I occasionally appeared (awkwardly) in public, but it was an uncomfortable role then and one I never wanted. I’m a private citizen through and through. If I do good, it’s through my work, through donations, small acts of charity, and trying to be kind. Like most people, I’m not remotely heroic. I don’t feel the least need to live in the world’s greatest country. I’m not even sure what we mean by “greatest,” but I would like to work daily alongside others to make the United States an even more decent and happier place to live, a place where we assume the best of “them” — those “scary people” downtown or across the world, including in Asia where my own interests lie. For myself, in the best of all possible worlds, the United States would be a place of gaiety and a certain insouciance. In the face of danger, we’d insist on dance tunes.
But that’s not likely. Thomas Jefferson’s Epicurean rallying cry for the pursuit of happiness won’t soon become part of a political platform, let alone government policy, given our American earnestness and our American righteousness.
I don’t have the guts or the temperament for the “public” part of public service; I’m too unpragmatic to submit to the necessary compromises of policy making. I relish the independence of mind, the opportunity to contemplate larger patterns of human existence through history and in radically different cultures. I found my calling as a professor. But perhaps unusually among professors, I have a keen sense of the toll of public life on private life. And I therefore have a keen appreciation for those who respond to public criticism with generous engagement, and who stick to the unglamorous, nitty-gritty work of policy making. Our job on the disappointed left is to hold tight to our highest hopes, but also to recognize when “public service” has been pursued with courage and decency.
Julia Adeney Thomas grew up in Abingdon, Virginia, and now lives in Hyde Park, Chicago. She teaches history and is the author of Reconfiguring Modernity: Concepts of Nature in Japanese Political Ideology.