When Tears Speak Louder Than Words
I was sitting next to my mother, the two of us glued to her computer at our kitchen table, watching a four-inch-tall Barack Obama cry in front of the entire country.
“Our hearts are broken today,” he told us.
Hours earlier, a gunman had walked into an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, killing six adults and twenty students and shooting many more. The youngest victims were five years old.
I was fifteen at the time. My brother had just turned ten. I wasn’t old enough — am still not old enough — to understand the depth of emotion that my mother was feeling. But I was old enough to understand that my brother was the same age as some of the victims — that it could just as easily have been him.
As Obama stood in front of us and cried and told us that our hearts were broken, my mother wiped her own eyes, and pulled me and my brother in closer.
“The majority of those who died today were children,” he told us. “They had their entire lives ahead of them — birthdays, graduations, weddings, kids of their own.”
The speech, in many ways, was classic Obama. The language was simple, few words longer than two syllables. And the images he evoked were heartbreakingly commonplace. Obama captured the hopes and dreams that we all have for kids, the ones that cross parties and regions and cultures.
But the delivery was not classic Obama. It was numb.
Obama normally turned words into art, imbuing each with a dignity and confidence that inspired millions. He was, after all, a president born from a single speech, and his presidency was defined by his optimism. He was never one to just read words off a page.
Yet there he stood on December 14, doing just that. Gone was the passion of the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Gone was the optimism of “Yes We Can.” His eyes were tired and bloodshot, his face blank.
“Our hearts are broken for the parents of the survivors,” he said, “for as blessed as they are to have their children home tonight, they know that their children’s innocence has been torn away from them too early and there are no words that will ease their pain.”
His last words were monotoned. The press briefing room swallowed their resonance — they fell from his lips to the ground, untouched by even a passing breeze of his usual energy.
That’s not to say that Obama was emotionless. He paused for several seconds after observing that the victims were mostly between the ages of five and ten. His eyes downcast, he wiped away tears, then tried to move on.
But he could not bring himself to deliver this speech the way he usually did, because he was numb — just like the rest of us.
It’s grim to claim that this speech solidified my admiration for the president. But his tears, more than his words, showed me that despite the seal and the mansion and the private plane, Barack Obama was still just one of us — first and foremost, a parent.
He and my mother were grieving for those children just like parents all over the country — all over the world. What if it were my child?
“This evening, Michelle and I will do what I know every parent in America will do,” he said, looking at the podium. “Which is hug our children a little tighter, and we’ll tell them that we love them.”
I’m twenty-one now, about to graduate college. But my brother is sixteen, still in high school. Like most kids — like me — he practices active shooter drills, crouching in dark closets and diving under desks.
Each time I hear of a school shooting, I check the headlines with a pit in my stomach, praying for those students and praying for my brother. Each time, it’s someone else’s town, someone else’s high school, someone else’s family. And each time, I mourn for that town, that school, that family. But I’m also thankful it’s not mine.
That mixture of fear and relief and shame and grief can be hard to acknowledge.
And yet, it’s embodied in a moment at the end of the speech, one I always think about. As Obama reaches the end of the speech, he stumbles over the word “Scripture,” pronouncing it “Spricture.” He knows he said it wrong, because he pauses and looks down at the page. And then he looks up and moves on with the rest of the sentence.
Whenever I hear this part, my eyes well up. I think Obama knew that in that moment, we didn’t need perfect. We didn’t need his soaring oratory and sparkling delivery. We just needed to understand that he, too, felt the gravity of the situation. The overwhelming emotions. That we weren’t the only ones feeling broken and helpless and numb.
Since Newtown, we’ve seen shooting incidents at almost 300 schools and colleges. Too many of the victims have been children. And yet, gun laws stagnate in state legislatures, and Congress refuses to act.
And as we see headline after headline, we are still numb — just in a different way.
Barack Obama’s tears and stumbles betrayed a numbness that comes in the face of unspeakable horror. But our numbness today stems from saturation. Parkland, Santa Fe, Denver… after each shooting, it gets harder to believe that this one will be the last.
On those dark days, I force myself to be fifteen again, wrapped in my mother’s arms, watching Barack Obama shed tears on national television. Because I’m reminded of a time when the President of the United States grieved alongside my mother, and we all believed ever so slightly in change.
In “Orations Worth Ovations,” professional speechwriters analyze great speeches (real or fictional, historic or personal) and explain what makes them so good.