A few years ago, a dear friend left us too soon after succumbing to cancer. I resisted articulating my love and admiration to her as I witnessed an unseemly parade of tearful remembrances at her bedside. I know now that it was a mistake not to have found a way to convey to her how her art and being had influenced and inspired me. Recent news of your diagnosis, Mr. President, has reminded me of those regrets, so now I want to send my good wishes for your health, and tell you how much you have inspired and guided me. I cannot possibly convey the entire story in a thousand words, but here is one tiny thread.
A young girl whose family had fled post-war Vietnam was placed in my class in middle school. We called her "Grace" and she did not speak any English at first and kept to herself. For years I had seen the pictures of war and bloodshed behind the glass windows of newspaper vending machines on my walk to school, and my teachers discussed the conflict with us in class. I had a vague intellectual sense of war but I was living in my own desperate circumstances with my parents divorcing and struggling for employment. Stress and violence were routine in my home and we survived on food stamps; but meeting Grace at my local public school put the war into perspective.
The horrors she must have seen I did not know or understand, until one day she smiled at me and I discovered that the flashes of dark gray in her mouth were not the braces I had assumed, but in fact were her teeth, rotted black. I soon learned of Grace's family, who for most of her life had hidden, run and starved before attempting their escape on a raft by sea. She later told me that they all believed their raft would carry them to a watery grave, and yet they gladly climbed aboard, so desperate were they for peace. When your policies made it possible for the émigrés of that bloody war to seek refuge on our soil, I understood.
When you asked Americans to do uncomfortable things in sacrifice for future generations, I listened. You weren't talking about bravery of the kind that Grace's family had exhibited; your call was to sacrifice comfort by consuming less oil. You said that we could move forward by preserving rather than destroying. You said it had to be fair, that all Americans must participate equally, including industry. You asked us to lower our thermostats, invest in technology that was sustainable and equitable, pay the true and higher price for what we consumed to reflect its genuine cost, to make clear to those who would be wasteful the real value of their consumption. You said the answer to our socio-economic and humanitarian woes was not in plundering the earth, but in protecting it. You made us brothers and sisters in the same uncertain boat of humanity.
Your extraordinary leadership was the foundation of my high school years, so when I turned 18 in 1980 and cast my vote for the first time, I voted for you. My dream of how the world should work was immediately disappointed, and over the years I witnessed how it became popular to blame government, how "citizen" became conflated with "consumer" and how the prosperity doctrine became a wildly popular religious and social belief -- and I bristled.
I returned to college in 1993, as a newly divorced single mother, raising my children in Los Angeles after being accepted to UCLA. I went to school on loans and grants and had no choice but to ignore the naysayers with their xenophobic whisperings against the dangers of sending my children to Los Angeles Public Schools. I was told the schools were undesirable and that I could fudge my address to get my kids into a "better" district. But I knew full well that what LAUSD offered could not be taught in a history book and that my children would have the privilege of developing friendships with people of all colors and creeds, and learning from the inspired teachers who made it their life's work to serve the most underserved.
Our apartment became the afterschool home to so many children of differing racial, ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds, who later went on to college along with my own kids. These young people are now quite literally endeavoring to save the world and I can personally trace this back to you. My oldest son is a progressive organizer who works for the AFT, because he believes that public school is the only place where our nation's children can come together in such diversity and empathy under the educational leadership of dedicated professionals (who would suffer the abuse and scorn of an ungrateful nation). My daughter, an artist and arts educator, recently said to me "I can no longer participate in the slave labor clothing market" and vowed that she would only buy clothing that was produced humanely. This is a sacrifice for her (a college educated young woman who makes barely more than minimum wage) to pay much higher prices for the sake of others. My youngest son studied sociology at American University and once called me, lamenting the political mucking of the word "feminist" because he could not understand how equity could be a controversial notion.
When I had no safety at home, when food was scarce and my life seemed impossibly violent and out of control, you became President. You instilled a belief in me that moral leadership will win. You led with the highest standards and it changed my life and eventually the lives of my children and so many others. Look around and see what you have sown in the next generation. Thank you President Carter for your prescient service to me and my family, to our country and the world. Thank you for your grace.