A Letter by Jeannette Gaudry Haynie

mpu   |   July 26, 2021

A photo of Jeannette Gaudry Haynie's family. Photo credit to Jillian Marie Photography of the NOLA Front Porch Project, 2020

Dear Annette, Jules, and Tom,

It’s July 2021. In the past five years, you’ve experienced life as a family separated by military service, moved a thousand miles away, started school in a new city, made new friends and lost older ones, left those hard-earned new friends, and moved again, left grandparents behind, and started new schools again (this time, virtually, during a global pandemic). You did it all while the country agitated and burned, while communities and families fractured, and while issues such as racism, climate change, and school shootings sparked protests in our cities and activism in your schools.

This past winter, as our nation weathered a tumultuous election mid-pandemic, when health, safety, and even the truth was politicized, you experienced some of the worst of America. You saw the ugliness of racism and its stickiness, and how power corrupts and feeds itself. You saw facts manipulated to spark an act of terrorist violence meant to destroy our nation from within. You heard loved ones echo lies and watched as a key principle of our democracy was weakened, while self-interest trumped concern for others. When I look around, I see many needs in America; I see yawning gaps between the nation we are and the one we can be, the America that I want us to leave for you and your generation. It’s been hard to be a parent through this – I can only imagine what it’s been like to process it as a child.

But when I look back and see how you and so many of your generation have grown and risen to the challenges faced, I am filled with hope and the knowledge that you have the strength, resilience, curiosity, and patriotism that you – and America – will need. So I want to tell you about the America that I believe can emerge – the one that exists in her ideals, the beauty of her diverse population, and the strength of character of her people. I want to tell you how to start, to get from here to there.

The America that I believe can emerge is one where humanity in all of its amazing forms is embraced. Where sexuality is seen as the beautiful expression of life that it is. Where our glorious array of colors, shapes, and sizes are celebrated – and diverse experiences are recognized for the range of human existence that they represent. Where we see others as fully human, rather than one-dimensional caricatures to demonize. Where we listen to learn and to grow, rather than shutting our hearts and minds to another’s truth.

The America that can be also reflects these possibilities in her institutions. This is an America where pathways to leadership exist throughout the land. Where exercising the right to vote is enabled by all. Where the systemic and lasting tentacles of racism, sexism, and all forms of harmful discrimination are energetically dismantled, and their impacts actively healed. Where rights and resources are not viewed as a zero-sum game, and are instead recognized as key to a secure, prosperous, and promising nation. Where service in all of its many forms is sought and celebrated.

More importantly, I see this America as the only version of herself capable of rising to the challenges that we face and that your generation will face most acutely. Those challenges are very real and getting more complex every day.

But how do we get from here, in July of 2021, to there? Well, start with yourself, while building the world around you.

First, build your strength of mind, of character, and of will – build the strength to push through challenges and do the hard work. Rise to the challenge but keep rising. You can do hard things – the only way through it sometimes is straight on. You cannot imagine the strength that you will need… but believe that when you need it, you will have it.

Second, resilience – it is overused, but it’s real. You have it within you, and you build it through adversity and failure. Failure is a gift – use your failures to give you clarity and force you to grow. You will mess up, but it’s ok: as Brene Brown says, we are not here to be right but to get it right. Every single day, try to get it right, and build a little bit more.

Third, as Ted Lasso (and before him, Walt Whitman) noted so eloquently, don’t get judgmental – get curious. Keep asking questions. We learn about racism, sexism, privilege, and bias not to be shamed but to build knowledge. Seeing the world through clearer eyes can be painful, but it is also a gift – without it, we cannot change things. And remember to humanize. Dehumanization makes it easy to hate or fear. Seek to ask why instead.

Fourth, recognize patriotism for what it really is. It’s not a sticker or a flag, a parking spot, or a salute at a football game. It’s doing the hard work to challenge and change our nation and its institutions – to push them to draw ever closer to the ideal. It’s questioning leaders, putting yourself out there, aligning values to actions. Democracy is a verb – it takes sweat, and it takes effort, especially when it’s hard, because that’s when it really counts. That’s how we make America what she can be.

This all may seem too idealistic or impossible to attain. But I’ve seen you in action. I’ve seen you rise to the moment, and I’ve seen your strength, resilience, curiosity, and patriotism.

Five years ago, as our family was split up by the military (again), I saw the three of you rise to the moment – walking the dog, doing dishes, starting dinner, washing laundry, and giving me hugs when I crashed, exhausted, at the end of each day. Your strength was contagious, and I pulled my own strength from you.

When we moved three years ago, you left best friends and schools to uproot yet again. But I saw you cry then straighten your backs and start anew – making new friends, jumping into your new community, growing through adversity. Two years later, mid-pandemic, after schools closed and everything screeched to a halt, we moved again. You had to say goodbye again – this time without closure or hugs from friends or grandparents. I saw how much it hurt, but you rose to the moment, clinging to each silver lining through your tears. Do you remember that last day of school in 2019, when we reflected on how hard starting a new school had been and how much you’d grown in a year? This is resilience. My military babies – you are freaking resilient, and I drew my resilience from you.

Last year, when America was roiled by the death of George Floyd and streets filled with protestors, as we dug into understanding racism in our institutions and communities, grappling with our own privilege, you rose again to the challenge. Instead of getting judgmental, you got curious. Instead of feeling defensive, you opened your minds, asked questions, and learned. You marched (masked) in protests, wrote messages of support in chalk, and read books on racism and history. I saw your curiosity, and I drew mine from you.

And in recent years, you became patriots in the truest sense of the word. I saw passion spark in you as you jumped into the work of making democracy happen – meeting with elected representatives, trekking miles to canvass, and reminding people to vote. When doors were slammed in your faces, you moved right on. You shed the sweat that this works takes – learning that democracy is indeed a verb.

On January 6, we watched as our nation was attacked and elected leaders fomented violence. I felt your fear and anger; DC is as much your home as New Orleans. Your dad and I sought words to reassure you, but we did not know what to say until you showed us. Instead of falling into the trap of hate, you turned to love. You hung our pride flag and made packages for homeless citizens. You reached out to friends and read news voraciously, asking questions far beyond your years. You wrote letters, watched documentaries, and educated us all.

Annette, Jules, Tommy, I see you, with your strength, resilience, curiosity, and patriotism, embracing the discomfort of change, questioning all, and speaking truth even when it hurts. My dears, you are leaders. From Tommy standing up for classmates on the playground to Jules coloring everything in rainbow flags to Annette asking hard questions – at every step, you have risen to the moment. You know hard facts that we did not know as kids: that children are killed in school shootings; that climate change may overtake our New Orleans home before you can grow old there; that the rate of suicide among transgender people is horrifyingly high. But you know that with privilege comes responsibility, and you are clear-eyed about our privilege and how we should use it to change things.

So now, it’s July 2021… we stand at a moment, and those moments will keep coming. It will take every bit of your strength, resilience, curiosity, and patriotism to address the challenges we face as Americans and to create the America that can be, but you have so much to give. We often fear the work and pain inherent in change – but change for the better can’t be done without sweating. If I learned nothing else from being a woman in the Marine Corps, I learned that we can change far more of the world than we think we can. There are infinite possibilities in each moment – and each moment has the opportunity for us to build the America that can be. Build strength of character, not power for power’s sake. Build resilience, not walls. Be curious, not judgmental. And step up – for you are leaders, my children.