The door to my 10th grade English classroom was flung open with more than a little purpose on the afternoon of October 24, 2003. Irritated, after a long day of teaching, I looked up to see two stocky men, strangers, each with a curly black cord snaking from a right ear to God knows where. Fear replaced irritation as my heart leapt, scared by the suddenness of their movement and the no-nonsense look on the faces of the United States Secret Service. My high school was being “swept” in preparation the arrival of Senator Clinton. The three students in the room, frozen by a situation they had only witnessed in movies, looked at me in surprise, happy to be getting out of their current assignment. I told the agents we needed to stay put to finish our work. The looks of the agents softened as they gave us a nod before closing the door and moving down the hallway to “sweep” the remainder of our school.
Senator Clinton was due to speak within the hour in the high school atrium to award the our school district a federal grant to equip district school busses with diesel emissions reduction systems. I waited with my students in the hallway behind the stage with hopes of meeting the Senator and former First Lady. I moved closer in an attempt to hear my students converse with Senator Clinton. She look up at me and smiled. I offered my hand and introduced myself. I noticed a twinkle in her eye, a softening humility of the often beleaguered former First Lady who had been so hated by so many – even some from her own party. Initially, my feelings were mixed regarding Hillary Clinton. I had friends who resented her for not ditching her husband in the face of his infidelity. There were those who could not separate the president’s personal faults from the actions of his wife. I heard the degrading comments referencing Senator Clinton’s political aspirations; “too ambitious,” some said. But I know a woman’s ambitions are not judged the same as a man’s. Like Sophocles’s Antigone, Clinton’s drive comes from a place that is feared by her opponents. Hillary Clinton has long embodied the power of one who prefers reality to dreams. And, when her First-Lady reality punctured the dreams of those Americans used to seeing women behave a certain way, the ground was in place for all manner of campaigns to bring down Hillary Clinton. She’s a woman who will not be held in place by the principles of double standards revered by the political, nattering, nabobs who slink about, reading and seeing only that which justifies their point of view.
There is an aura that surrounds Hillary Clinton. And maybe, my end-of-the-day fatigue made me more prone to awe. But, once in the Senator’s presence, I would have signed on for whatever job she gave me. Such was the strength of the power she conveyed and shared with those working with her. The idea of Hillary Clinton as a natural politician provokes fear. That a person can go into a building full of people and by her mere presence win hearts and minds, is frightening indeed, especially to the more artificially programmed politician who will spend untold public dollars to find the smoking gun that will close the circuit on her power source.
Later, when I related my experience to others I was reminded of how awe can be inspired not necessarily by decency but the simple power of prominence. I should say here that I was no stranger to being in the presence of prominent people. I have met my share of the famous and infamous. The names that remain in my memory are there for having shown a certain unpracticed humility that overrode all the accolades and awards. It is a power that comes from knowing oneself and an understanding of human nature in general. The venerated journalist, Walter Cronkite displayed the same humble power as he shook hands while walking through the hallway of my first post-college job at CBS Radio in San Francisco. I often thought that, as a naïve twenty-three-year-old I was blinded by the bright light of Cronkite’s accomplishments but the longer I live; I know what can and what cannot be faked. There are times when humility has to live along side of ambition – times when humility seems practiced to veil naked drives for power. But ambition, for women as for men, is not necessarily a bad thing. I believe it is this ambition that Secretary of State Clinton’s detractors cannot abide.
Still holding my hand, Senator Clinton thanked me for teaching, saying that so many of our country’s teachers could be successful in many other professions – but instead they come to the classroom. Intrigued, I wondered how this woman, whom I had never met, could presume to know me? Now, 13 years older and wiser, I understand (like Clinton) more about human nature. Senator Clinton’s acknowledgment of a certain nobility in one’s desire to teach made me glad, all over again, for my decision to leave California. And there will be those who say that all Senator Clinton represented for me that day in 2003 was a simple affirmation of my own life choices. But, as Antigone infers, there are two laws: man’s law and the law of nature. And one is more infinitely worth fighting for.