Last Wednesday was a typical school vacation day. Mostly. My husband worked all day, my 8-year-old played outside all day, and my 7-year-old was cajoled into doing something other than messing with her iPad for some of the day. I took the 7-year-old to an appointment in the afternoon and we raced home when we finished because while this was an ordinary Wednesday afternoon, it wasn’t an ordinary Wednesday night. This was the night Naomi, my 8-year-old, was going to speak in front of our City Council.
This all started back in 2014, when we were driving through town and Naomi and Miriam noticed that the decorations along the streets downtown and in the light display in our park were all Christmas decorations. Cries of, “Not fair, Mama!” rose from the back seat and while I agreed with them, I asked, “What do you think we should do about it?” I love listening to their ideas for solving problems—sometimes wild and impossible ideas—because their imaginary solutions to real world problems gives me a lot of insight to their worldview.
And so, after brainstorming ideas and reining in a few outrageous one—not all of them legal—Naomi settled on writing a letter to the mayor. In her shaky, 6-year-old penmanship, she wrote a letter explaining that she was sad when she saw no Hanukkah decorations and that she thought other people might feel sad too when there were no Hanukkah decorations on Main Street. She asked the mayor to think about all the people who live in our town. I mailed the letter to the mayor and we headed out of town to visit family.
Upon our return, I sorted the mail and found an envelope addressed to Naomi with a City Hall return address. It took great restraint not to rip it open myself and read it, but instead I shoved it into my bag and as soon as I picked up Naomi from school, almost before she could buckle her seat, I excitedly handed her the letter and listened to her read the mayor’s response—a response which included an apology and a promise to have Hanukkah decorations in the park in 2015.
The year passed, and no Hanukkah decorations arrived in 2015, but even in our disappointment, we decided to wait another year to see what happened. That didn’t stop us from talking about it during the year, trying to rally support, and one of our supporters (who happens to be the pastor of the local Presbyterian Church) said, “Go speak at the public comment period during the City Council meeting.”
December 2016 arrives and so does the annual light festival at one of our city parks. It’s a beautiful, sparkly display just right for walking through and admiring. And no Hanukkah decorations. Not there, nor downtown, nor at City Hall. Now it was time to have another conversation about integrity and accountability with a kid already devastated by the election results. Naomi very bravely agreed to speak before the City Council. We sat down, drafted another statement, we practiced and practiced, and on the night of the City Council meeting, Naomi got up and read the following statement:
Hello. My name is Naomi and I am 8 years old.
Two years ago I wrote a letter to the mayor about there being no Hanukkah decorations. I wanted there to be some because it doesn’t seem fair that all the decorations are for the Christian people. The mayor wrote me back, and promised me that there would be Hanukkah decorations. I think we should think about everyone who lives in [our town] all the time, and even though we are different we all share some things. I think almost everyone likes to look at pretty lights. One of the most important things about the story of Hanukkah is about the lights. I know that Altamonte Springs and Daytona Beach have Menorahs. I am disappointed that the mayor didn’t keep his promise. I feel left out when I see only Christmas decorations. I would like for the City to put money in their budget to make sure there are Hanukkah decorations like a Menorah for next year. I would like to help light the Menorah when you do that.
Thank you for listening to me.
Her voice shook at first, and you could hear the nerves. I stood next to her, with my hand on her shoulder, and reminded her to just read her statement. A sentence or two in, you could hear the emotion in her voice. The mayor’s face shifted from “what a cute kid” to “I’m being called out on failing to keep my promise.” He looked uncomfortable.
We turned over a copy of Naomi’s original letter and the mayor’s response to the city clerk so that they could include it with the meeting minutes. And then I took a moment to speak about how proud I was of Naomi, and about how she has embraced the meaning of Hanukkah, standing up for what’s right and not following the crowd or assimilating. I read another statement of support from our friend the pastor, who couldn’t be there herself. The mayor squirmed a bit. He spoke briefly, telling us that he remembered getting Naomi’s letter and that he had promised the Hanukkah decorations, and that he’d have the city look into it. We left the meeting with mixed emotions.
I wish we’d gotten a better answer than “look into it.” I wish I could promise my kids that they would see themselves reflected in the world around them, in the holiday celebrations in their own city. I wish they attended a school that hadn’t done things like schedule parent-teacher conferences on Yom Kippur, or that Naomi had never been given an assignment asking her to write a letter to Santa, even though I made it clear that we don’t celebrate Christmas at all and certainly no Santa. (She handled it with as much dignity as a 6-year-old can be expected to by writing, ”Dear Santa, I know I don’t celebrate Christmas but I’m doing this anyway…”) I wish I could promise that next year, Naomi would get to stand there and flip the switch to light the Menorah that she wishes for.
But I think this experience has given her something bigger. It’s taught her about fighting City Hall. It’s taught her about accountability. It’s taught her about making a difference in the world, and it’s given her the confidence to know that she can stand up and use her voice, loudly and clearly, to make a change and be the light in the world.