More Powerful than a Pen?

Ms. Obama

Mrs. Obama at this week’s gathering of educators

Today’s blog is a complete version of a letter I sent to the White House in response to remarks made at this week’s education events, hosted by the First Lady.  The White House contact page allows only 2500 characters, including spaces. And as I’m sure you can understand if you follow my blog, it took me hours to condense this into fewer characters than it had originally had words.

Dear President and Mrs. Obama:

My father quit school in fifth grade, my mother in ninth grade.  Dad quit because no one ever told him the value of an education.  My mom quit to take care of a mother with a life-threatening illness.  Their income hovered just above the poverty level, and during job losses, our family survived because of government assistance.  Because of their experiences, my parents demanded that their children get the education they didn’t have.  They named me for their favorite teacher, and because they respected teachers so much, I chose teaching as my profession.

Mrs. Obama, as you said at this week’s events at the White House, “That story of opportunity through education is the story of my life.”  Of my paternal grandparents’ 57 grandchildren, my sister and I were the first to enroll in and graduate from college.

Listening to you, Alicia Keys, and Jen Bado-Aleman speak, I was struck by how much each of your stories sound like my own.  As you spoke about your children, I nodded my head in agreement, because all our children have had opportunities that we did not.  They know poverty only through our stories, and that is the power of an education.

Alicia Keys said of education, “It opens doors, it helps our children, and it absolutely benefits us all….If we touch one life in this world, we’ve really done something.”  As I listened, I remembered the first student who ever said to me, “There’s no one in this class who looks like me.”  That student wanted to flee from my honors class, where she was the only child of color, and return to an on-level class.  I had to convince her over and over again that she belonged in that class.

As I watched the videos of the two events on the White House web site, I realized that there was no one on the dais who looks like the children growing up in poverty in Oceana, the all-white town in southern West Virginia where I grew up.  The town is plagued by many of the same issues that urban areas face—poverty, drug use, and violence—so much so that a documentary has been made about it, Oxyana, a story so compelling that it earned the director an award as Best New Director at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival.

President Obama, you said at the event on Thursday, “I’m going to act on my own if Congress is deadlocked.  I’ve got a pen to take executive action where Congress won’t.”  But you have something much more powerful than a pen, and I say that as an English teacher who believes the written word can change the world.  You and Mrs. Obama have the power to go into areas like Oceana and carry the same message you so eloquently delivered this week at the White House.

Mrs. Obama, you said, “I know that there are so many kids out there just like me—kids who have a world of potential, but maybe their parents never went to college….It’s our job to find those kids.”  You will find those kids in many areas of the country served by the very representatives in Congress who block every piece of legislation designed to help kids like them.

In October I buried my mother next to my father at the top of a mountain overlooking four of the counties affected by last week’s chemical spill.  In our car following the Chevy Suburban, the only hearse that could make it to the cemetery, I was accompanied by three fellow teachers, my husband and two close friends who had grown up in the D.C. area.  One of them is the white mother of a biracial child, a mother who has devoted her career to D.C. area students.  Her husband Wayne, also my dear friend, was an African-American who, when he died last March, was lauded by Superintendent Josh Starr as “a true warrior for justice” for his work with underserved children in Montgomery County.

But as we drove for an hour and a half through the hollows of West Virginia, the hearse traveled back roads that even my husband had never seen.  My companions, who have known me and heard stories about the poverty of my childhood for over 20 years, understood for the first time the resilience and grit it took for me to get to college and to graduate.

And so, Mr. President and Mrs. Obama, I implore you to fight as hard for the children in southern rural areas as you are fighting for children like Mister and Pete.  You have the power, in spite of a deadlocked Congress, to reach out to people like my father, a staunch Republican who only once voted for a Democrat.  These are people who will believe in you if you speak to them about the future of their children.

Throughout my childhood, I listened to my father praise Republicans and to my mother ask him why on earth, though he was a coal miner and a union man, he would vote for “the rich man’s party.”  But both my parents were grateful to Congressman Ken Hechler, who brought me to Washington during my sophomore year in high school to see how the government worked, and to Senator Robert Byrd, who spoke at my high school graduation and congratulated my parents on my achievement at being valedictorian.

After my father’s death, my mother followed her daughters’ lead and changed her party affiliation.  And, Mr. President, she cast her last vote for you, giving you the hope you asked for.  Like many others, she looked at her children with tears in her eyes and said, “Who would have ever thought that I’d live to see a black man become president?”

I believe in you as leaders, as parents, as people.  I applaud the work you do for others every day.  I’m not in the least sorry that I cast my vote for you—for both of you, really—in the last two elections.  And I want to see you regain the support of those who hoped for more.  To do that, you must go into all the world and preach the gospel of hope—into the hostile landscape of the red states as well as into the urban areas that need you so much—into all areas where abject poverty extinguishes hope.

“We want to restore the essential promise of opportunity and upward mobility that’s at the heart of America—the notion that if you work hard, you can get ahead,” you said this week, Mr. President.  You can do it.  And I pray every day that God will guide your steps—steps that will, perhaps, lead you into places you’ve never been and into a renewal of your commitment to hope.


Estelene Boratenski

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