The day after the presidential election, I went to work at a small inner-city public high school to find people walking the halls with contented smiles.
Even the students who generally find it easier to scowl than breathe were beaming. As their principal, I reprimanded them, half-heartedly, numerous times for suggesting that we all should've taken the day off to celebrate. Although the election was all anyone at school was talking about, a conversation with a black coworker was going to take a decidedly different angle.
Looking around to make sure there was no one else within earshot, Stacy whispered fiercely: "Did you see that moment on stage when Barack had his arms around Michelle, with his hands clasped right above her butt?"
"Of course, I saw it," I answered, the mental image vivid in my mind despite viewing it through a puddle of happy tears. My colleague shook her head, still not quite believing any of it had happened. "Wow. Our first lady has a no-joke booty. Do you know what that means?"
"That there's hope for me yet!" She sashayed out of my office, and I sat and smiled to myself. My posterior is decidedly more modest than Stacy's, but I was right there with her.
Barack Obama's election carries a different meaning for each of us. No, we didn't think it could happen in our lifetime, but more than that, the fact that it did happen meant to my student athletes that we had a leader who might beat him at a game of pick-up basketball. For another student who grew up in foster care, it meant that people didn't have to come from perfect families in order to be successful. For my circle of friends, a group of 30-year-old black professionals, it was a matter of realizing our own capability. The Ivy League African-American community is tiny enough to be separated from any given person by no more than two degrees. My friend, Brian, said it best: "If Barack were our age right now, we would be Facebook friends."
My friends and I call our soon-to-be president Barack, not as a sign of disrespect, but, in fact, as just the opposite. To us, Barack is family. And Obama's victory was a family victory. It could have been any of us.
I had the pleasure of meeting the president-elect a few years ago, shortly before he announced himself as a candidate. He immediately revealed himself to be enormously gracious, cheerfully posing for a picture, smiling his signature grin and listening thoughtfully as I told him about my career as a high school English teacher. As he was being pulled away to meet someone else, he made sure to say, "E-mail me any ideas you have to improve urban education. It's great to hear your commitment to public schools."
In our three-minute conversation, he made me feel like I had something to contribute. During his many, many months of campaigning, he made each one of us believe that we were important to him and important to this country. Many of us had checked out of the political process for years or had never bothered to check in. But suddenly, everybody was engaged.
My 19-year-old cousin called me from state prison on Nov. 5, excitedly sharing how he listened to the Election Night speech on the radio. He's lost the right to vote, but he hasn't lost hope.
It is estimated that more than 2 million people will attend the presidential inauguration. For many, the act of descending upon the nation's capital on the weekend of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday is about witnessing history firsthand (even though that decision most likely means sacrificing the unobstructed vision guaranteed by watching it on television). But for others, going to D.C. is about something else.
It's about supporting our guy. Having his back. It is as natural as attending a best friend's wedding, a daughter's baby shower, a son's graduation. Barack personally invited us with his grassroots/high-tech campaign, with his focus on our concerns and with his smile.
And even though he won't see every single one of our faces as he is sworn into the highest office in the land, he'll know we're there.
Knowing that he is there has forever changed the hopefulness of black America. Cheering from the sidelines is the least we can do.
Rachel Skerritt is a novelist and high school principal living in Boston.