Nearly every day since my sophomore year of high school, I have carried a U.S. Constitution in my left-hand pocket whenever I go out. People often ask me why. They’re usually fairly incredulous when they ask. It strikes many as odd, and I understand their reasoning. It strikes a few as honorable. Despite my brother’s warnings not to do so (I think the phrase he used was “social strike-out”), I’m going to tell you just one of the many reasons why I do this.
Following World War II, my paternal grandmother was forced into labor in East Germany, where she worked as a housekeeper and nanny for families. She was paid only in food—just enough to survive. But after a while she decided she’d had enough and resolved to escape. She lived near a river that divided East and West Germany, and, advised by the local car mechanic about its shallowest section, she set out in the middle of the night to cross it with a friend. The Eastern zone was well-manned. Armed soldiers patrolled it. If my grandmother had been caught she likely would have been shot. To make matters worse, she had no idea how to swim. I cannot imagine the courage it must have taken on her part, but she pressed onward, wading in water that sometimes went up to her neck.
Upon reaching the other side wet and cold, her friend approached a house and asked the family inside if they could stay and sleep on the floor. Turned away, the friend came back crying. My grandmother decided to give it a try, hoping she could—as she puts it— “warm the hearts” of the family inside. Fortunately for both her and her friend, they got a floor to sleep on and some food that night. The next day they worked their way to Berlin, and from there my grandmother was able to gain passage to America, sponsored by her brother who was already a U.S. citizen. Fast forward several decades, and my grandmother is now 90 years old and surrounded by a family that has grown and prospered.
But though my grandmother’s story is unique in its details and brings pride to my family, it is not so unique when compared to the family histories of other Americans. Many have come to this country after escaping hardship with little else but dreams. It seems that we often hear the following sentence at the start of an American family history: My [insert ancestor] came here with nothing but [insert small dollar amount] and now s/he is the [insert successful accomplishment]! Indeed, we hear this sort of story so much, spoken from the lips of so many people and so many politicians, that it has almost become an American cliché. But is that not the most beautiful thing imaginable, that such a great story might be cliché?
So instead of an answer, I’ve given you a long story. I’ve told you about my grandmother’s story, a story of my family. But the answer is much shorter than that. It’s not so much about this one story. It’s about what that story represents and what this country makes possible. It’s about something that resonates with me deeply—and resonates with all Americans at the beating heart of this country. It’s about the American Dream, the greatest gift our country has to offer its citizens. From my grandma crossing that river to her grandson attending Duke University, this is the dream living on through the ages.
I do not propose to say that the U.S. Constitution was written with the purpose or intention of fostering the American Dream. This is not a column about constitutional interpretation or the intention behind the sacred document. I do not mean to say that all Americans have access to this dream—but, rather, that it is something we must continue to work toward. What I do propose to say is that the country founded by this Constitution has given my family and so many others such happiness, opportunity and liberty. It’s the type of dream, the type of vision, that my grandmother longed for as she crossed that river so long ago.
So, yes, I carry a pocket Constitution with me wherever I go. And, yes, in the eyes of most people it is not the coolest thing a man could do. But I ask just one thing of you. Imagine for just a second that there existed an object that represented ideals you believed in so strongly, so deeply, that you would give everything to preserve them. Now also imagine, for just a second, that the object in question could fit in your pocket. Quite simply, wouldn’t you carry it around with you, too?
Daniel Strunk is a Trinity junior. His column runs every other Thursday. You can follow Daniel on Twitter @danielfstrunk