Growing up in the Decatur, Alabama, "patriotism" meant a bunch of loud, drunk folks at the annual Spirit of America Festival in jean cutoffs scream-singing "Proud to be an American" and crushing beers, hollering about how America was the best place, how everybody else was wrong and ignorant and backwards.
Not the loveliest.
No one in my family was military, and I never really felt the sense of American-ness that everyone else seemed to get. To me as a child, we were often a nation of arrogant, ungrateful, over-indulgent, culture-less hillbillies in one of the newest, yet most powerful, nations in the world.
When I moved to York, Alabama (population 1,800), I inherited a classroom without any supplies. No chalkboard. No markers. No paper. Barely any textbooks. Mouse droppings on the floor and God-knows-what on the windows. I ended up eventually receiving a projector through the kindness of the people I knew. Before we received it, though, my personal laptop was all I had, and kids crowded around the computer as I lectured from an 8 x 14 screen on a kitchen stool in the front of my room.
The reason I mention the projector is because I'll never forget the day it arrived. It was September 11, 2011, and I'd put together a tribute of videos, both informational and gut-wrenching, about the day to show to my students. This was a history course, after all, and they needed to know. What I wasn't anticipating is that my middle schoolers had very little idea what September 11th signified. The closest answer I heard was, "Wasn't that when somebody bombed a building?"
And so my job that day became different. Instead of reminding them in a mini-lesson about a day that none of us should allow ourselves to forget, I actually watched my students, all of whom were 2 and 3 in 2001, witness this event for the first time.
I was in my own seventh grade history class when the planes hit the Towers. And, ten years later, I was teaching it to 95 seventh and eighth graders. I watched it happen on their faces. In their tears. I watched heads turn away and eyes shut, unable to take in what they were seeing. And then I listened to them ask what they could do to help. Students who, in many cases, weren't guaranteed a bed or a meal that night, were asking how they could help.
So they wrote letters to the family of a man whose last words they'd heard in one of our videos that day - a guy named Kevin Cosgrove who died in the South Tower. I remember sitting at my desk at the end of that day, sunlight streaming through the windows, desks empty, the quiet of a child-less classroom sweeping over me, overtaken by the depth of these precious words on paper written by my students - words of comfort, of thanks, of healing - to Kevin's wife and children. People they didn't know.
It was then that I understood what the true spirit of America is. I felt like the Grinch. It broke my heart wide open. Turns out, it's not the "God Bless America and No One Else" philosophy that I mistook it for - people wore that and claimed it as patriotism, but that's not what it really means. Whatever turmoil, economic, political, or otherwise; whatever unrest, whatever trial, I am a deep believer in the triumph of the human spirit. And that's what patriotism is all about: a belief in the power of uniting and validating all the human spirits in this country.
Now, watching fireworks on the Fourth always makes me cry. I get it now. I am humbled to tears by the weight of the sacrifice it took to start this scrappy country; of the people who work hard every day to protect us; of the hearts of those who still don't feel protected. I love the chest-filling pride that comes with believing in us. I believe in us because of my kids. I believe there is a potential for greatness in America that's realized every day when a person does someone else a kindness. I believe in the power of a country that asks "What if?" I also believe in the power of saying that what we're doing isn't good enough. And I think that today, more so than most days, is one to think about where we are as individuals in the fabric of a country with so much potential. How we can say, "No," to the policies and ideas that are hurtful to our brothers and sisters. How we can throw our arms around the things that frighten us about each other. How we as a country are more than one man, or one set of legislators - the fabric, the messy, often not-so-pretty guts of the United States - that's us. It's on us. It's in us. For better or for worse. For liberty and justice.
And, maybe most importantly, for all.