Thousand Oaks Elementary School was already proud of Kamala Harris during her tenure as a top state and local politician, but her inauguration Wednesday as the first woman Vice President — as well as the first Black and South Asian woman to hold the office — has brought renewed energy for teachers to educate young Berkeleyans about democracy, and their possibilities in life.
Anne Hirose and Marvin Reed, fourth- and third-grade teachers at the school, spoke to Berkeleyside while taking a break from virtual class at the campus on Colusa Avenue Wednesday. Both were decked out in gear to celebrate the moment, with Hirose wearing a “Leaders go to Thousand Oaks Elementary” sweatshirt and Reed sporting a quote from the Hamilton musical — “History has its eyes on you.”
PTA parents had hung a banner earlier in the day congratulating Harris, who attended the school as part of the second cohort of students in Berkeley Unified’s bussing and integration program. Harris was honored with a mural at the school early last year, and she shared the photo on Twitter.
Reed and Hirose, who both expressed relief at a peaceful inauguration following the violent mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol two weeks ago, said Harris’ election is empowering for students because it gives them a local role model in the highest level of the U.S. government. It also helps flip the script, Hirose said, showing a history of Black people and people of color through the lens of achievements, not just struggle.
“A lot of times, we’re trying to raise these leaders for the real world. It’s been hard these past four years to really give them some examples — like this is what you can aspire to be,” Reed said, pointing to a set of leaders — President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris — who use the power of their words to unify and strengthen the country, instead of to beat down and insult others.
Reed grew up in Oakland as a child and had to apply for an inter-district transfer to attend Oxford Elementary School in Berkeley. Just like Harris, he said an education in Berkeley gave him cultural capital to take on the world, and he hopes to return that favor to his students today.
Teachers have had to educate children through a series of unprecedented current events in the last year, including the COVID-19 pandemic, school closures, violent attempts to undermine democracy and a boundary-breaking election. It’s a challenging task, Hirose and Reed agreed, but children are perceptive.
Shown side-by-side comparisons of Black Lives Matter protests and the U.S. Capitol mob, their students pointed out the differences in police presence and aggression, the teachers said. Watching today’s inauguration, the students also asked prudent questions about why crowds were smaller than previous events. Teachers opened up the discussion, and children offered answers — “Could it be because of the virus? Is it because of the violence at the Capitol?”
Hirose has a lesson planned tomorrow about youth poet laureate Amanda Gorman, who delivered a moving poem at the inauguration, and both teachers expressed how powerful it is for students to feel that they’re involved in the current moment, not just seemingly archaic events from dusty history books.
“It sounds kind of cliche, but I think a lot of our kids can see themselves in her,” Hirose said. They’re gonna be inspired by her story, and her background.”
Though Harris’ former Southwest Berkeley duplex at Bancroft Way (at Browning Street) was taped off today to protect the privacy of students at the building, which is now Berkeley International Montessori School, other small tributes popped up in places throughout Berkeley.
An artist crocheted Biden and Harris onto a fence at Martin Luther King Jr. Way (at Addison St.), and others expressed excitement in singalongs and street chalkings. The Berkeley Public Schools Fund is also selling shirts celebrating Harris’ historic win, designed by two local artists.