Bringing Pell Grants to My Eyes
By SARAH VOWELL
Published: August 30, 2008
ON Monday night at the Democratic National Convention, Caroline Kennedy introduced a tribute to her uncle, Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, by pointing out, “If your child is getting an early boost in life through Head Start or attending a better school or can go to college because a Pell Grant has made it more affordable, Teddy is your senator, too.”
To my surprise, I started to cry. Started to cry like I was watching the last 10 minutes of “Brokeback Mountain” instead of C-SPAN. This was whimpering brought on by simple, spontaneous gratitude.
I paid my way through Montana State University with student loans, a minimum-wage job making sandwiches at a joint called the Pickle Barrel, and — here come the waterworks — Pell Grants. Thanks to Pell Grants, I had to work only 30 hours a week up to my elbows in ham instead of 40.
Ten extra hours a week might sound negligible, but do you know what a determined, junior-Hillary type of hick with a full course load and onion-scented hands can do with the gift of 10 whole hours per week? Not flunk geology, that’s what. Take German every day at 8 a.m. — for fun! Wander into the office of the school paper on a whim and find a calling. I’m convinced that those 10 extra hours a week are the reason I graduated magna cum laude, which I think is Latin for “worst girlfriend in town.”
Twenty years after my first financial aid package came through, I have paid off my college and graduate school loans and I have paid back the federal government in income taxes what it doled out to me in Pell Grants so many, many, many, many times over it’s a wonder I’m not a Republican.
But I would like to point out that my perfectly ordinary education, received in public schools and a land grant university, is not merely the foundation on which I make a living. My education made my life. In a sometimes ugly world, my schooling opened a trap door to a bottomless pit of beauty — to Walt Whitman and Louis Armstrong and Frank Lloyd Wright, to the old movies and old masters that have been my constant companions in my unalienable pursuit of happiness.
I’m a New Yorker now. Every now and then when I have time to kill in Midtown, I duck into the Museum of Modern Art to stare at Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.” I love looking at the picture, but I also love looking back on when and where and how I first saw it — on a slide in a first-year art history course in which some of my fellow students were ranchers’ sons who wore actual cowboy hats to class. It was a course I paid for, in part, with a Pell Grant, a program always and as ever championed by “my senator,” Ted Kennedy, a program so dear to Barack Obama’s heart that increasing the maximum amount of Pell Grants for needy students was the first bill he introduced upon arrival in the United States Senate.
I am a registered Democrat. That first night’s convention speech by Senator Kennedy about his life’s work reminded me what being a Democrat means. I have spent the last eight years so disgusted with the incompetent yahoos of the executive branch that I had forgotten that I believe in one of the core principles of the Democratic Party — that government can be a useful, meaningful and worthwhile force for good in this republic instead of just an embarrassing, torturing, Book of Revelation starter kit.
When Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke on Tuesday night, she brought up some of the people she met in her thwarted campaign for the nomination, including a young marine beseeching her for better medical care for himself and his comrades, and an uninsured single mother with cancer rearing two autistic children.
Imploring her most ardent supporters, some of whom have been, let’s say, a tad tepid about backing Senator Obama, Senator Clinton said, “I want you to ask yourselves: were you in this campaign just for me, or were you in it for that young marine and others like him? Were you in it for that mom struggling with cancer while raising her kids?” In other words, in a fine display of adulthood, she asked her delegates to decide whether they are in a cult of personality or members of the Democratic Party.
Barack Obama is the best possible presidential candidate to campaign for traditional Democratic ideals because of his ability to stir party diehards and rally new voters, because of his backbone, his gift for oratory, formidable intelligence, compelling back story, swell wife, adorable offspring and no small amount of cool. I mean, the morning after that acceptance speech in front of 80,000 people, even Richard Nixon’s personal Rasputin, Pat Buchanan, was on MSNBC calling Senator Obama “manly.”
Honestly, when I think about how Senator Obama would handle the nuts and bolts of governing I have no more and no less faith in him than any of his major rivals for the nomination of the Democratic Party. This is actually a huge compliment. They were a seriously solid group. Compare them to the incoherent Republican primary field, a set of candidates expressly invented to make the average Republican voter nervous: the businessman was too Mormon-y; the evangelical might worship Jesus more than money; Senator McCain has campaign reform cooties; Ron Paul was Ron Paul.
But I would have been content with any one of the Democratic candidates in the Oval Office — Bill Richardson, Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, even John Edwards (because it is possible to make bad decisions about one’s private life and still have good ideas about health care). Each one has his or her gaping drawbacks, of course, but that’s always going to be true of people seeking a job only a damaged lunatic would want.
When Barack Obama talks about an America as it should be, I’m guessing the best of all possible countries he imagines would look awfully similar to the ideal America just about every registered Democrat would dream up. Picture this: a wind-powered public school classroom of 19 multiracial 8-year-olds reading above grade level and answering the questions of their engaging, inspirational teacher before going home to a cancer-free (or in remission) parent or parents who have to work only eight hours a day in a country at war solely with the people who make war on us, where maybe Exxon Mobil can settle for, oh, $8 billion in quarterly profits instead of $11 billion, and the federal government’s point man for Biblical natural disasters is someone who knows more about emergency management than how to put on a horse show. Is that really too much to ask? Can we do that?
As Senator Obama, the plainspoken former editor of The Harvard Law Review would answer, yes, we can. As the recipient of a partly federally subsidized, fancy wallet-size diploma from Montana State, I prefer to put it this way: Indubitably, we shall.
Sarah Vowell is the author of “Assassination Vacation” and the forthcoming “The Wordy Shipmates,” about the New England Puritans.