The best of times in the worst of times

Published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Volume 55, Issue 13, November 21, 2008

It was like the closing scene of the most melodramatic Dickens novel, in which some noble and generous sentiment finally, miraculously, triumphs over the dark forces of suspicion, greed, and deceit, bringing together a fractured family and a frayed community in a celebration of hope and possibility.

Last week, on election night, after the most-historic presidential victory was declared, I tore myself away from the television set where I had been anxiously watching the returns with my wife and wandered over to the University of Puget Sound student union to see if the students were savoring the significance of the moment. As I walked briskly through the campus (I didn't want to miss anything), I heard shrieks of victory and joy echoing everywhere, coming from groups of young voices throughout the campus. All around me, I began to see crowds of students spontaneously streaming together, bound for the same place in the center of campus - the omphalos of our student union.

They had been scattered around in their residence-hall rooms and lounges watching the returns, too, and now needed to assemble to mark the moment. As I arrived at the union, I found young people spontaneously cheering, shouting, dancing. They collected in the large entry of the building, a couple hundred of them, cheering and hugging, hoisting their cellphones aloft and taking pictures. They were chanting, "Yes we can!" and "O-Ba-Ma!" in unison, with a conviction far greater than their enthusiastic cheers at our recent football games. Some were banging pots and pans, others holding election signs, others embracing.

Then, suddenly, spontaneously, they all joined hands and burst out singing, at the top of their lungs, "The Star-Spangled Banner." "The Star-Spangled Banner"! They knew. They knew. This was their moment. This was their election.

Across the room, I saw the face of our student-government president, who also happens to be the first African-American student president in our university's history. As I approached him and our eyes met, words failed, and we engaged in the old "power to the people" handshake from my college days. "Remember this night," was all I could say. "Remember this."

We glanced up at the television screen and caught a view of the cheering crowds in Chicago's Grant Park, awaiting the victor's appearance. I flashed back to a scene, as if it were yesterday, that had taken place 40 years earlier in 1968, when, as a college freshman, I joined thousands of others in that same Grant Park to march in support of peace and civil rights. That was the year of my first involvement in a presidential election, and I, too, had great expectations.

I remembered watching, a few months later, images of the 1968 Democratic National Convention on television, and scenes of bloodshed and billy clubs, police and their dogs in combat with students, right there in Grant Park. And I recalled joining another huge crowd in Grant Park a year later, for a free concert by Grace Slick and Jefferson Airplane commemorating the student protesters at the 68 convention. The music railed against the Vietnam War and prophesied a new day. Finally, I flashed on another occasion, when we assembled in Grant Park in 1970, this time to mourn and protest the deaths of four students from Kent State University who had been killed by the Ohio National Guard - students not unlike those all around me now, who were dancing and smiling and singing the national anthem.

In that same park on this night, the crowd gathered to laugh and weep, to celebrate and usher in a new age. Crowds gathered in Times Square, too. And in Jakarta. In London, Paris, and Cape Town, in Kenya and Japan. Something important had happened, and everyone knew it. The students around me in the student union in Tacoma, Wash., also understood that they had made it happen, along with so many others, in an unprecedented surge of youth voting, civic involvement, and a belief that their actions could make a difference. Yes, they did.

In so many ways, we can define these days as the worst of times. But on election night, it seemed like these just might become the best of times, too. This was a night when many of us, like orphans in a Dickens novel, found our way home again, full of hope and great expectations.