Teachable Moment in, by, and for America

As a person whose career focuses so much on learning, I can't help but notice when learning plays a part in the larger world, and especially in the life of my family, community, and country.

My wife and I, and our daughter, live in the United States. Last night our country elected a new President, Barack Obama.

Right after Republican-party candidate John McCain conceded the election in a very gracious speech, with Democratic-party candidate Barack Obama due to speak to the nation to acknowledge his victory, my wife and I decided to wake up our 5-year-old daughter (she's almost six–a few months really matter at her age).

Both my wife and I have been strong Obama supporters in the general election. For weeks, our daughter has been asking about the election. "Who are you going to vote for?" "Is mommy going to vote for him too?" The questions are repeated and keep coming over time. You can feel her trying to learn how the world works, how we fit into the world. Last night at dinner she said, "I hope Iraq Obama wins." We're still working on getting her to say "Barack."

As we put her to bed, we asked her whether we should wake her up to tell her who won. She said yes.

A little after 11PM, I walked upstairs to her room. In her darkened room she was lying across the bed, her orange sheet covering her body, her bare feet sticking out past the side of the mattress. "Alena, Obama won. Do you want to come downstairs to see him speak?" She popped right up, which is unusual as she usually gets up in a slow series of sleepy disgruntlements. She zoomed downstairs and nudged her way inbetween her mommy and daddy.

We had to wait for Obama to appear. As we gloried in the moment last night, with our daughter between us,
my wife and I were happy parents, proud of our country. Our daughter got to hear the same pledge of allegiance that she
says in her kindergarten classroom every morning. "Do you know
what song that is Alena?" "No." "That's the national anthem. That's our
country's song."

During the wait for Obama, the announcers kept talking about the historic moment, how we were electing our first black President, how women and African Americans hadn't always had the right to vote. Tired, with her head laying on her mommy, then on daddy, then peeking over the sheets laying across us on the couch, she watched and listened and continued to shift back and forth.

"What color skin do you have to have to be President?", she asked. "Any color. You can have any color skin. In the past, a black person couldn't be President, but now they can." "What color skin did they have to have?" "They had to have white skin." "I have both colors (she has some of her mother's Colombian skin)." "Yes, you do, just like him." We point at the TV where Barack Obama is speaking. A moment of quiet reflection. "But a woman can't be President." "Oh yes, a woman can be President. You can be President if you want to." Another moment of quiet reflection, longer this time. Her quiet was surprising because usually when we tell her she can be anything she wants to be, she immediately interrupts and tells us she wants to be a veterinarian because she loves animals.

Alena was riveted to the two Obama girls as they took the stage. When they didn't come out later when the Obamas and Bidens took the stage, she asked where the girls were.

I'm going to bet that my daughter remembers this election. I remember President Kennedy getting shot and killed when I was a little younger than she is now. I remember my mom in tears and not being able to watch cartoons because adult shows preempted the cartoons on the TV. Alena did ask last night if there were any kid shows of the Obama speech. Alas, no…, perhaps a lost opportunity for learning.

Even as a learning expert, it's hard for me to fully fathom how tiny moments have profound learning effects for kids. Some of it is surely emotional and social. Seeing all the faces with tears of joy around the country must have had an impact. Seeing how one's parents cry, beam, and do uncharacteristic things (waking the kids in the middle of the night) must have an effect. Hearing the announcers glow with special rhetoric must make a difference. Seeing all the different types of faces on the stage, brown, white, and in between. Youngsters like the Obama girls. Elders like Biden's fragile steely mom. Hearing Obama's eloquence, his example of the 106 year-old woman voter born before women could vote, must have made a difference. And new research on learning tells us that learning something just before sleeping helps cement that learning. So many factors at play.

I can't help wondering what other wonderful teachable moments we have in store for us. How many teachable moments have already occurred. How this affects not only our children, but us; not only our country, but people around the world. How this has changed us forever.