For the inauguration ceremony, our staff at Levenger headquarters here in Delray Beach, Florida, gathered in a conference room. The live coverage was projected onto a screen we normally use for business presentations. Lori and Janet, our executive assistant, brought in two trays of cookies with dozens of little American flags, and were met with lighthearted laughter and applause. People snapped up the flags to wave or just hold. We sat or stood, mostly in silence, watching the ceremony and listening to Obama’s inaugural address. As in so many other conference rooms and family rooms across the country, our staff clapped and sighed and wiped their eyes. Someone handed me a tissue.
I felt proud of our country for its peaceful transition of power, and proud of the powerful symbolism that Obama represents for America and the world.
After work, I went to my regular weekly tutoring session at the Village Academy, not far from our headquarters. The Academy is a public school whose mission is to support its surrounding community of mainly lower-income families. The Academy offers classes for both youngsters and their parents, many of whom have recently immigrated to America with their children.
In the evening, while their children attend after-school programs, those parents who can spare the hours from their jobs come in to work on their English in free classes and one-on-one tutoring. On this night, a group of nine parents—all recent immigrants—traveled by bus the few miles to Delray’s downtown public library for a tour. They were escorted by staff members of the Palm Beach Literacy Coalition and Americorps.
The new immigrants, men and women, were from four countries: five from Haiti, two from Nicaragua, one from Mexico and one from El Salvador. They sat on a beautiful long wooden bench with stainless steel appointments, in the lofty lobby with bamboo trees, slate walls and a waterfall nearby, while Norma Kane, the library’s community relations assistant, gave a bit of history.
She explained that the library began in 1913 and was established by the Ladies Auxiliary on the second floor of the old town hall. She didn’t mention that for its first decades, blacks would not have been welcome. Nor was this the only library that had such a policy; it was prevalent in parts of our country as recently as the 1960s.
As one former mayor of Delray told me, any blacks who ventured at night from West Atlantic Avenue to East Atlantic Avenue (the demarcation street between black and white Delray) would have been escorted back by city police. The new library, which was built in 2004, now presides majestically at 100 West Atlantic Avenue in, as Norma says, “the center of things.”
Norma explained to her guests that all the books, audiobooks, DVDs and CDs were free to check out, and that all they needed to do to get their own library card was to show some sort of photo ID—or even a bill with their name and address. The library is proudly unconcerned with anyone’s antecedents or status—east or west address.
After Norma’s talk, library volunteers divided the visitors into two smaller groups to tour the library. They went to the quiet study rooms, saw the dozens of free Internet terminals (all busy, as usual), greeted the reference librarians, saw the foreign-language sections and explored the children’s library, where they could bring their children for story hours.
Afterwards, the new immigrants lined up to receive their library cards before boarding the bus to return to their children.
The following morning, as I sat at the kitchen table and read the transcription of President Obama’s Inaugural Address in my newspaper, I took my pen and underlined this sentence:
The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our Gross Domestic Product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on our ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart—not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.
Because of our country’s belief in a common good, our lovely Delray Beach Library is able to extend the opportunities that literacy brings to every willing heart.
It has been a good week. I am proud of this small community and this big country called America.
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