On Becoming a US Citizen

The following is a transcription of a talk given to the Upper School by GFA Head of School, Janet Hartwell on Friday, February 3, 2012 during our regular “Friday Speaker” time.  Given the subject matter, it seemed only appropriate to publish this talk here.

A large poster showing a group of newly arrived immigrants huddled on the dock of Ellis Island stared down at the rows of people seated in government issue, metal, folding chairs. A security officer sat behind a broken, three-legged desk, handing out numbers to anyone who entered.  It was a bleak room–peeling paintwork, worn linoleum floors, no visible telephones or computers–nothing beyond chairs, and a desk, the very basic requirements for an office, and even those seemed grudgingly given; shades of an Orwellian world, with an overwhelmingly powerful bureaucracy,  and people identified  only as numbers; and this was just to have my fingerprints taken. After 15 years in America, it was the first step of my journey towards United States citizenship.

Several months later I was in a different room. There were the same folding metal chairs, but this room had two televisions, both showing CNN, and two American flags flanking doors on either side of an imposing desk. This was a kind of latter day Ellis Island, and a potent blend of expectation and anxiety hung in the air. The woman in front of me talked quietly to someone who was clearly a lawyer, voicing fears of rejection, of not being admitted into the “brave new world,” the same fears that surly went through the minds of everyone who shuffled through the great hall of Ellis Island.  We were all awaiting our examination-–the final step of the citizenship journey.

Every so often an immigration officer appeared at one of the two doors and called out names whose Chinese, Slavic or Arabic sounds sat awkwardly on the Bostonian tongue. I did wonder if some people actually failed to recognize their names and spent days waiting to be called. There were whispered conversations all around me  – where do you come from? How long have you been here? Do you have family here? Children? We were interested in each other’s stories and journeys to this point, when from across the room a voice announced Janet Hartwell- I jumped up and presented myself to the immigration officer at the door, and as I did so, another woman also answered to the name. What to do? A moment of confusion, panic? My double? However, I was directed one way and she another. I’d love to know what became of the other Janet Hartwell.

So, you’re a teacher, my examiner queried when I entered his room.  You get the hard questions. Who said: “Give me liberty or give me death?” Blind panic struck – Henry V-I blurted out, no, no,  wait, Charles De Gaulle, no, it must be an American, George Washington. No, I don’t know, I practically sobbed, my hopes of citizenship diminishing by the second. That one wasn’t in my book, I whined, referring to the SAT type prep book Everything you need to know to pass the test;100 questions towards citizenship, which I had practically learned by heart.  I did, however, survive and pass the exam, wondering, not for the first time, how knowing who the 15th president was would make me a better citizen.

Brian Moore, the author, in his last essay “Going Home” wrote,” There are those who choose to leave home, vowing never to return, and those who, forced to leave for economic reasons, remain in thrall to a dream of a land they left behind. And then there are the stateless wanderers who, finding the larger world into which they have stumbled, vast, varied, and exciting, become confused in their loyalties and lose their sense of home.”  I was one of those wanderers; I grew up in England, went to graduate school and taught in Scotland and then lived in Iran, and  Saudi Arabia before coming to live in America.  America to my new eyes was a land of giddying choice,  opportunity,  excitement,  infinite variety, and where ice in drinks was not a luxury but part of daily life. However, for many of the years I had lived in this country, I did not feel that America was my home. I was always happy here in the US, but I never stopped thinking of England as my home, in the fundamental sense of the word.  England is where I come from, what I really understand, the base against which all else is measured. In an ironic way, nothing makes you feel more like a native of your own country than to live in a country where everyone else is not. For over 20 years, overseas and here in America, being English was my defining quality; it was often how I identified and differentiated.

So here I was, well along on the road to becoming an American, finally ready to commit to my adopted country. It had been a relatively easy journey; the fingerprints, endless paper work, long lines, and annoying bureaucracy were nothing compared to the hardships, fears and profound uncertainties experienced by thousands of immigrants who had also left all that was familiar, to undertake the long, difficult journey with no certain knowledge of success at the end.

What finally made me decide to become an American citizen was the feeling of not belonging to either one country or another. I lived in America, but as a resident alien, I had a British passport, but no longer lived there. To belong, one needs to be productive, useful, and to feel that one has a voice in how things are done and how decisions are made, to participate in public affairs, to be an active, engaged citizen, recognizing the importance of his or her personal contribution to the public good. In the tradition of the great philosophers Hobbes and Locke, who were interested in man as a thinking, moral being embedded in his society and reacting to its demands out of his human nature, I wanted to vote, to be a participant in the political system and to exercise the responsibilities that come with citizenship.  The reason I am talking about this now, of course, is because we are in an election year, and I want to stress to all of you the importance of exercising your right to vote, now if you are old enough or when you can. This was one of the fundamental issues of the Arab spring – the right to hold free and open elections where every vote counts and everyone has a vote. It is something we must never take for granted.

The final step in my citizenship odyssey was the swearing in ceremony in Faneuil Hall in Boston. On a snowy day in late January 1999, 397 new citizens were called upon to foreswear allegiance to “foreign potentates” and to take the oath of allegiance to the United States of America. For Patrick Henry- yes, I later learned the real author of the quote, it was an either or scenario – liberty or death, but I have to admit that for a while, I had a profound sense of ambivalence, a strong sense of loss and an equally strong sense of gain. Thankfully, I can admit at this point in the journey, an increasing sense of this is where I belong.

On Becoming a US Citizen

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