“Plant a nut, get a nut,” someone once told me about my son Doug’s antics. Approaching 9 years old, he has somehow outpaced my childhood obsession with historical trivia and the macabre.
Last year, he wandered down to my home office and extracted a ten-pound American history textbook left over from my college days.
“Can I read this?” he asked.
“I guess so.” At the time I wasn’t even sure he could lift it.
He heaved it up to his bedroom and spent the next several months plowing his way from colonization to the Nixon Administration.
First he absorbed the pictures, then learned words by context, teaching himself new terms like “artillery” and “insurrection” along the way. Plagues are different than plaques. The “l” in “colonel” is pronounced with an “r” sound. Why? No one knows.
Months later we saw a story on the news about the call to include a woman on American paper currency. Doug had already expanded his reading of history, using precious internet time to explore history (along with cars and sweet, sweet biplanes). One day Doug came to us and declared that Harriet Tubman should be on the $20 bill.
She would be the best choice, he said. She would represent both women and black Americans and her story was the most interesting of the candidates mentioned.
“How do we make this happen?” he asked.
“Write a letter to the Treasury Department?”
So he did.
It was a simple, straight-forward note that he wrote by hand. We put a stamp on it and sent the missive off to Washington, D.C. Several months later he received a word-processed reply, thanking him for his input.
So much hope goes into a letter like this. I’ve sent many for more selfish reasons — seeking a job, hoping something I wrote would be published in a big national publication. But think of the hope of sending a letter just because you think it’s the right thing to do.
In fact it was a letter just like this from a 9-year-old girl in Massachusetts to President Obama that got the U.S. government to consider putting women on newly designed bills in the first place. Such hope can produce results.
Last week the U.S. Treasury announced that Harriet Tubman would appear on the newly redesigned $20 bill, not on the $10 as had been hinted earlier. Doug celebrated. While his letter might have been just one of many, for him it was a sign that if you make a good argument for the right reasons, you can win.
It’s true, Harriet Tubman was never a president or a general. She didn’t sign the Constitution. (Indeed, she might have had something to say about to being designated as 3/5 of a person). Harriet Tubman is a great American not because of an office. She never held one of any note, nor did she ever have material wealth, even after she became famous.
Harriet Tubman, born into the immoral institution of slavery, was badly abused but broke free. Not content to accept her own freedom as reward, she dedicated the rest of her life to freeing everyone else she could through the Underground Railroad. She did most of her work on foot. For decades of her life she could have been put to death on any given day. She was great because she was selfless. She succeed not by herself, but by uniting multitudes in a righteous cause.
Tubman’s commemoration isn’t just great for women, or African Americans. The values she represents would salve us all just as surely today.
My son George, Doug’s twin, is more interested in computers and coding than history, but was inspired to put pencil to paper as well. The other day we mailed a letter he wrote about a new video game idea to the people at Nintendo. That one went the other direction, to Washington State. If you hear about George’s idea on the news, you’ll know it’s been a pretty good year for the Brown boys.
Even if not, never underestimate the power of hopeful ideas composed without agenda, sent through the mail without reservation. Hopefulness fits in any sized envelope, and can be delivered by hand if need be.
Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the May 1, 2016 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.