I still can’t watch the video of Matt Woodrum’s run around the track with his entire class coming together behind him to cheer him on without getting teary-eyed. This one 5-minute video is a lesson of everything we want to teach our kids about courage and determination and passion, and of how an entire community of people came together to support one of their own. I can’t think of anything I have ever seen on YouTube that has inspired me more.
Beyond it just being an inspiring individual moment, his classmates rallying around Matt is for me a metaphor for what kind of country we should be. America should be a family where we rally behind our brothers and sisters who are having a tough time of it, where we lift each other up in the struggle to finish the race, where we treasure the slowest of our children just as much as the fastest. And the fact is that the people in this country who need that support and encouragement usually are the ones working harder than the rest of us in their effort to finish the race. I am happy for whichever of Matt’s classmates actually came out first in that race, I’m sure whoever they are worked hard for the win and deserved the prize, but Matt had to work far harder than anyone else in that race to finish and he still needed the rest of the class to help encourage him to make it home. Matt was inspired by his classmates, but they were inspired by him as well, and everyone involved -- and everyone who has since seen that video -- has become a little bit better person as a result.
It sure is a better metaphor for what kind of society we want to build than the Ayn Rand stories of how society is only made strong because the strongest and wealthiest selfishly pursue whatever they want, leaving the lazy leeches of society to fend for themselves. And Matt’s race is a better metaphor for our country than the story we heard from the Washington Post about the kind of bully Mitt Romney was in his high school. In fact, when I first heard about Matt Woodrum on the news, the announcer led into the video saying we usually hear stories about bullies at school hurting weaker kids, I thought maybe there was another Romney high school “hijinks” story coming up. When this video came up instead, I was struck by the difference in these stories: in one, the wealthy kid with the powerful father hurts someone because he was different than what Romney thought people should be; in the other, an entire class rallies behind the kid who is different and struggling and cheers him on.
The story of Matt Woodrum’s race and his entire class cheering him on is America at its best, America as it should be. Not surprisingly for a guy who was a high school bully, the story of Mitt Romney’s America is the story where the politically and economically strong take advantage of the politically and economically weak. Wall Street regulations go away, and so does the minimum wage. Millionaires get more big tax cuts while school lunches, Head Start, student loans, and programs to help the elderly and those with disabilities like Matt get slashed. The drowning housing market is allowed to hit bottom. It’s Bain-onomics, where everybody gets to play, but the cards are marked for the rich Wall Street guys already at the top.
Modern conservatives have taken to worshiping the free market, and claiming we should build everything in society on its altar. If that means cheering for the idea that someone without health insurance would die, or laughing delightedly at the idea that, as Glenn Beck put it, “in nature, the lions eat the weak,” then so be it.
Here’s the problem: in that world, the lions would eat Matt Woodrum. Did you see that young man’s courage and fire and determination? I don’t want to live in a country where he is left by the side of the road to die because he is “weak.” If his parents are not rich, I don’t want him to die or suffer because he can’t get health care. I want to live in the country where his community, his American family, stand with him and cheer him on.
The story of Matt Woodrum’s race and the kids who cheered him on is the story of an America where we lift each other up when we are struggling, where we cheer each other on even when we are slow. When Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of that dream of his in that most famous speech of his, he called it “a dream deeply rooted in the American dream,” and he spoke of his faith in that kind of American family:
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; "and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together."
This is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to the South with.
With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
And this was the faith that one of our pilgrim founders John Winthrop had about America when he came here in 1630, that we would always be a place where “We… delight in each other, make others' conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor, and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, our community as members of the same body.”
Matt Woodrum, and the classmates cheering him on, follow in a long tradition of Americans who have that American faith, where we treat each as a family, where we create a beautiful symphony of brotherhood, where we make others’ conditions our own. That American family, that American faith, is profoundly better than a faith in the market above all and the lions eating the weak. I’ll take Matt Woodrum’s America over Mitt Romney’s any day of the week.