March 25, 2011
I just got back from three jam-packed days in our nation’s capital. Me, sixty-four eighth graders, and five other chaperones. So this post isn’t about food, I’m afraid. It’s about patriotism and belief.
D.C. holds a powerful chunk of nostalgia and memory for me, each visit powerful and distinct in its own right, layering my connections and attachment, building a kind of claim, piling on my own personal rituals. Like many of my students, I encountered Washington for the first time as an eighth grader, earnest and eager and pretty well awestruck. I cried when I heard Taps played at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier; I read the speeches carved into the Lincoln Memorial aloud to myself. I’ve done both on every subsequent visit, too.
As a sophomore in high school, I participated in a program called Close-Up, during which I made a very good friend, Katie, whom I’ve written about before. We were old enough then to debate about politics, to dream of and aspire to things. Every time I’m back, I do two things for Katie: take a self-portrait picture in the Vietnam Memorial, as she taught me, and send her a postcard of the Jefferson Memorial, her favorite.
My mom and I traveled together to D.C. just a few months later—she hadn’t been in decades, but I knew the place so well that I could show her around. My parents elected to come to this country; it meant something to them, America. They arrived in the late sixties, were amazed by the freedoms of speech and protest and dissent; some of my mom’s most vivid memories include listening to the Watergate hearings on their small, transistor radio and debating about politics over Howard-Johnson pistachio ice cream.
I lived in D.C. for a very special summer in college, interning on Capitol Hill, subleasing an apartment in Columbia Heights, learning the ins and outs of the ambition and diversity that drives the District. I ate a lot of amazing food, I went to a new museum every weekend, I learned to be less afraid and more adventurous.
Half-a-dozen trips cannot, has not, diminished for me the power of the place that is the symbolic center of the country I love. Our monuments, our memorials, our beliefs and our highest ideals—honored and held up as a standard by which we are to live. Do we always reach that standard? Of course not. But I believe it is a real standard, a truth with aliveness and power, and I am proud to be a part of it.