Learn by listening to the 9-year-olds

By John Laird, Columbian Editorial Page Editor

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Eager to transfer my vast parental wisdom to my daughter, I sat her down about 20 years ago for another BLT (Boring Lecture Time). The subject was bigotry, and our shared need to repudiate it. This was my chance to set one young mind permanently upon a proper path, sort of my gift to the world.

The intensity of the lecture rose as I explained the evils of prejudice and, wanting her to become more like me, I concluded with a robust, “I really hate bigots.” She rolled her eyes, then bore them directly at me and muttered, “Dad, think about what you just said.”

Thus ended another BLT in which the student taught the teacher.

In the past week, Christina Taylor Green has revived many such memories for me. It was gratifying to see President Obama make her the most prominent character in his Wednesday evening speech in Tucson. Three times during that speech, the president provided details about the 9-year-old girl who died in the Jan. 8 tragedy. She had been “an A student, a dancer, a gymnast, and a swimmer … the only girl on her Little League team … showed an appreciation for life uncommon for a girl her age … .”

Those details must have left many Americans wondering how many Christinas there might be in our lives, what they might be trying to tell us, and how willing we are to listen.

Later in the speech, Obama mentioned Christina again and answered a few of our questions. All of those Christinas around us are “so curious, so trusting, so energetic and full of magic” and, most importantly, “so deserving of our good example.”

And that good example is manifested in how we “listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together.”

Civility began to unravel

The opposite of that good example slithered onto the American scene in the summer of 2009 and continues to gain momentum. That was when town hall meetings across America started looking like a cross between “The Jerry Springer Show” and the pie fight near the end of “Blazing Saddles.”

I remember wondering that summer what the bullies in those town hall meetings would think if their children behaved like that at school assemblies. (Here we have yet another case of how adults should learn from kids.)

Did any of this adult hooliganism contribute to the Tucson tragedy? In his speech, Obama said “it did not.” Maybe he’s right. But he’s also correct to assert that “a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to our challenges as a nation, in a way that would make (the Tucson shooting victims) proud.”

I’m not alone in admiring Obama’s speech. Praise was especially effusive from conservative commentators. But a few complained about the raucous nature of the crowd. These complainers, I suspect, are the types of people who believe every memorial service should be run exactly the way they want to run it. Fine, but if they ever attend an Irish wake or a funeral in inner city New Orleans, they’ll be even more offended.

Here is reality: Obama’s speech was televised nationally and heard in person by 14,000 people on a university campus. Therefore, it is only natural that the setting would be different from the somber nature of the several smaller, private memorial services that occurred the next day.

More important than the solemnity of the moment was the conveyance of the message. And many of us believe that standing, clapping and applauding was fitting for a message about a 9-year-old student council president. Obama said she was “a young girl who was just becoming aware of our democracy; just beginning to understand the obligations of citizenship; just starting to glimpse the fact that someday she, too, might play a part in shaping her nation’s future. … She saw public service as something exciting, something hopeful. … She saw all this through the eyes of a child, undimmed by the cynicism or vitriol that we adults all too often just take for granted.”

I’m glad I got to know Christina. It wasn’t the first time I learned a little more about myself from a child.

John Laird is The Columbian’s editorial page editor. His column of personal opinion appears each Sunday. Reach him at john.laird@columbian.com.