American History; Our Hope for the Future

(The full text of Olivia Olson’s winning Voice of Democracy essay)

The binding is a bit loose, the pages curl slightly with age, and the passages have been highlighted and margins doodled in by previous students. My American history textbook is certainly aging, but the messages it contains are timeless. Sitting in class and thumbing through those yellowed pages, I am suddenly transported through time.

The birth of a new nation begins to unfold from dense paragraphs in Chapter 3. The American Revolution. Thirteen scrappy colonies tenuously bound in the ideals of liberty and democracy. Protesting the tyranny of Britain, Bostonians dump tea in the harbor, twelve delegates meet at the first Continental Congress, and George Washington recounts Thomas Paine’s iconic words to his troops, “these are the times that try men’s souls.” And when their souls were tried, their bravery, patriotism, and determination to forge a better future never wavered, and the United States of America was born. The reading concludes with an illustration of the Battle of Yorktown and the simple caption, “a glorious victory for the newly formed nation.”

An insert in Chapter 7 discusses American inventions. A cartoon image depicts Thomas Edison refusing to give up on his lightbulb, claiming, “I have not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” And nearly 100 years later, visionaries like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates advance computer technology, putting libraries and symphonies at our fingertips. The spirit of innovation is an inherent part of our history, one fostered by the belief that we can always improve the world around us. I look up from my textbook, sitting in a room lit by American innovation and chairs filled with students from all around the world. Their parents and ancestors came here for a better future and helped build, shape, and advance this nation.

A yellow Post-it note serves as a forgotten bookmark and draws my attention to a black and white photograph in Chapter 16. Women pour into the streets, donning signs that demand gender equality and the right to vote. In the section on Civil Rights, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivers his dream to a crowd at the Lincoln Memorial, and hundreds of people march across my page at Selma, protected by the National Guard. The subjugation of women and people of color are unignorable stains on the tapestry of our history. But today, these stains serve as reminders not to repeat the mistakes of the past. And they also remind us, that even in the face of oppression or prejudice, the American people can exercise the rights earned for each citizen to realize the intent of the Constitution: that we are all created equal.

Now notice I say earned, not given, when talking about our rights as American citizens. Because the liberties we enjoy, our unalienable rights to “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” have been bravely defended by our veterans. Without them, we wouldn’t have had the security to pursue innovations that changed the world, the freedom to speak our minds, nor the ability to stand here today, in the land of the free and the home of the brave, looking towards a bright future.

The bell rings suddenly, dismissing my history class and shaking me from my thoughts. I look at the glossy U.S. flag cover of my textbook and slide it into my backpack. As I walk to my next class, I think about the students who will traipse through these halls 60 years from now. High school seniors, just like me, will read their updated American history textbooks and be transported through the events of the past. I hope those chapters fill them with the same pride that I feel today. I hope they live in a world where these qualities, those of Washington, Gates, and King, characterize what it means to be an American. I hope that my children, and grandchildren, and great-grandchildren live in a country that continues to foster an innovative, resilient, and brave society.