2008 Gerald R. Ford Essay Challenge

Third Place Winner


Joanna Chen

Forest Hills Northern High School

11th Grade


            On February 18, 2008, Michelle Obama was repudiated by critics when she stated on the campaign trail that, “For the first time in my adult life, I am proud of my country, because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback.”

            Some Americans found this expression outlandish, offensive, and incongruous from the accepted and expected ideology of uniform loyalty and unwavering pride in one’s country. They speculated over why a 44-year-old woman had never before felt proud of her country. They accused her of being unpatriotic.

            But their perspective was based on a narrow perception of patriotism strictly in terms of devotion and love—a blind following of one’s country as if it were the ideal, a country upon a hill. This undiscriminating characterization fails to fully captivate the depth and breadth of what it means to be a patriotic citizen.

            Patriotism is not just lauding the achievements of one’s country, or citing its superiority as justification for its actions, or parading in red, white, and blue on Independence Day. Patriotism is expressing the active desire to better one’s country; aspiring and striving to improve society by contributing to discussions on local, regional, national, and international issues; transcending potentially divisive forces in order to better the community; and appreciating our inviolable human rights and taking full advantage of those axiomatic liberties—by voting, by petitioning, by protesting. And patriotism also obligates us to help protect the rights of others.

            On September 11, 2001, three firefighters in dusty uniform stood gazing skyward as they raised the American flag amid the rubble of the terrorist attacks.

            That was patriotism.

            When Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans—when even the government's response was inadequate—citizens and charities donated thousands of dollars and thousands of hours to support the struggling city.

            That was patriotism

            This summer, at the Obama center in downtown Grand Rapids, I listened to a high school teacher-volunteer patiently explaining how he usually conducted phone calls. “I like to add something personal to the message,” he said. “You read the script a couple of times, and it just comes out naturally.”

His co-worker nodded, then turned to me. “This is my first time; I'm rather nervous,” she confessed.

“Don't be—you'll do great,” her friend told her. “Every call can make a difference.”

            That was patriotism.

            In this era of advancing technology and consuming consumerism, presupposing our own patriotic characters has become an endemic assumption. We forget to take patriotism beyond a vague concept with vague connotations of love and pride and loyalty. We forget to actively pursue roles in our communities. We forget that we were supposed to vote today. We forget that we wanted to attend that rally downtown. We forget that not everyone has the rights that we do, and we forget to take advantage of our rights. We forget to appreciate them. We forget that integral ideal on which our country was based: the power of our government comes from its people. We forget to actively exercise our rights, to be empowered patriots.

            But Michelle Obama did not forget. When she said that “for the first time in [her] adult life, [she] was proud of her country,” she was not being unpatriotic. She was being honest. Rather than gratify the public’s expectation of unfailing, gung-ho, “Go America!”, she had the integrity and the independent insight to realize when her country was not living up to its potential, and she had the humility and the dignity to commend it—and to admit her own doubts—when she saw that it was. She recognized that “hope was making a comeback.”

            That is patriotism.