Passing the Penguins

va-assemblyOne of Jack’s favorite movies is Gregory’s Girl, set in a high school in Britain. A recurring joke in the film is the many unexplained vignettes of school life – the headmaster playing honky tonk on a piano during his break; a teacher flinging chalk and ranting about something unheard behind a classroom door; two people in penguin costumes wandering up and down the halls, clearly lost, and everyone who passes them says, in an annoyed tone, “Room 8, hurry up, you’re late, where have you been?” Etc.

Every year I go to Richmond to advocate for rural economic, educational, and health development, done by for and with rural people. I’ve done this trip perhaps eight years now, and while some things change, some things remain the same.

The sheer number of people up on the hill during the 46 days government is in session stays constant, but their costumes change. You round a corner and nearly careen into somebody wearing a VFW hat. People with white canes tap their way past the crowd of kids labeled (mysteriously) “VPT” and the VPTers shrink against the walls to allow them room.

A host of fifty-somethings wearing identical green suit jackets walk by, laughing. And in a line on front of a senator’s door wait women wearing pink and blue fuzzy scarves below their angry faces.

It’s American democracy in real action. People talking to their representatives, telling them what they think, why they think it, what they like done about it. It’s easy, especially now, to be cynical and withdrawn about those men (almost to a man, white men) in suits, but it’s also easy to talk to them. Even when they haven’t wanted to hear what I have to say, they’ve wanted to hear me say it. And most of them have listened with gentleness. I once had a legislator say to me, “I’ve heard that argument before, and I’m still not in agreement with it, but the sheer number of people who express it is beginning to have an effect.”

I asked him what kind of effect, and he grinned. “Sometimes you do what’s right because you know it’s right. And sometimes you do what you don’t think is right because that many people who actually work in the industry might know what’s right better than you.”

Fair enough. All those red hats and green jackets are having an effect. There are still conversations to be had with the guys in the suits, who are listening more than most of us think they are. Yesterday I told one of them why a piece of legislation had failed to help the people it was designed to, because of a small omission of detail it had overlooked in how the industry worked. He looked at me like I’d handed him a fresh cup of coffee.

“We didn’t know that. That makes perfect sense. Why didn’t anyone tell us that?”

I hear that a lot when I’m talking to legislators. They’re waiting for The People to show up and tell them things. Politicians really want to hear from us, despite the convenient apathy despair so often encourages.

“Why didn’t anyone tell us that” covers nuances that change intent in execution; it covers evil masquerading as good; it covers good that missed an important detail. And sometimes it covers BS. Not all conversations with politicians are honest or meaningful, but I’ll take eight out of ten odds any day. That’s how many usually are.

Plus there’s a new feeling on the hill this year: bewilderment. Almost, perhaps, fear. If the rules of the game have changed as much as it looks like they have, then The People have written a new handbook. Like it or lump it, The People elected this president. The People are to be respected, fuzzy scarves, penguin suits and all. Our voices matter and if we don’t like what the voices did this time, best make sure ours are louder next time. Persuasion is an art form not entirely based on TV exposure or the loudest voice in a room.

Perhaps the future belongs to The People who show up for it.

Go to, People. Wear a scarf.

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3 Comments

Filed under Big Stone Gap, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, small town USA, Uncategorized, VA, Wendy Welch

3 responses to “Passing the Penguins

  1. Rachel Eggleston

    I rarely comment on blogs but your post Friday really resonated with me. Thank you for your insights into putting in the effort to talk with legislators. I’ve always been skeptical of taking the time to do something like that because I didn’t think it would matter and they wouldn’t care anyway. Oh, how wrong am I. Wish I lived closer, would love to visit Big Stone Gap and the Little Bookstore.

  2. bex

    I am familiar with a literacy non-profit that invites its adult learners to become “ambassadors.” All adult learners may participate in workshops that help them find their voices. Ambassadors, particularly, receive training in public speaking. Ambassadors (and others) participate in public events, and at least once a year, the ambassadors travel to the state capitol to meet with their representatives. This, in a state that could be called hostile to education, has changed lives and changed legislative outcomes. It has also resulted in real friendships among legislators and adult learners.

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