Was that really only 10 years ago? It’s been a little like dog years, this past decade. Looking back at those 2009 columns, I wonder if that wasn’t actually 70 years ago.
Forgive me, please. I’m on this nostalgia trip because this week marks the 10-year anniversary of this column, so I’m indulging in some reflection, some reminders of how much has changed and some deep gratitude for the readers who have made a difference time after time.
It was a reckless and daunting leap I made into column writing after two decades of being a news reporter, of organizing facts, making sure to give all sides of an issue equal time and keeping myself and my opinion out of stories.
I wanted the column to tell the stories of our region, to take readers into homeless shelters and hospitals, classrooms and communities that they might not get to see. And I wanted to do that from the perspective of a woman juggling work and kids.
Some of our country’s greatest columnists told their stories from a bar stool, barbershop or a ballgame. I wanted to add stories seen from a playground, a day-care drop-off or a nail salon.
So we had some fun talking about the split-personalities of working moms — getting off the phone with your kid and then accidentally addressing the board in mommy voice. We laughed about the beginnings of the Netflix binge trend, our addiction to volunteerism and the scourge of frigid, summer air conditioning as a sexist conspiracy.
In the past decade, readers have joined me at a women’s construction class, danced at an under-21 foam party at senior beach week, met couples who go to strip clubs, stood in line in the dead of night with folks in Virginia coal country trying to get free medical care, rode in a plane piloted by the Blue Angels’s first female pilot, spent two nights in wet leaves under a canvas tent dressed in Colonial garb, followed a transgender preschooler on his first day of Sunday school as a boy and were there with me and photographer Marvin Joseph when a beloved swim teacher who been shot in a robbery died in the middle of our interview, a slow-motion homicide.
And — straight from my neighborhood on Capitol Hill — the city learned a lot more about the hundreds of homeless children living in an abandoned hospital that served as a shelter for them. I wrote about how they hide their homelessness in school, how they go trick-or-treating, how they find a place to play and, most heartbreaking of all, how an 8-year-old girl named Relisha Rudd disappeared in 2014 in the company of a shelter janitor who turned up dead. Her eyes still haunt me.
You heard about my own kids — 2 and 5 when I started the column. How I tried (futilely) to work from home with them on a snow day, how they took their first walk alone to the corner store, how they learned about racism when their black friends were suspected of shoplifting but they weren’t, and how they became addicted to Fortnite.
A newspaper column, I quickly learned, couldn’t simply be about cool adventures and interesting stories. I had to take a stand, to tell readers about the outrage of a situation.
When you write a column about people’s struggles, you also learn that the majority of humans are kind, magnanimous and clamoring to help. Yes, I hear from trolls. But many of the emails I get after writing about someone’s difficulty are folks asking for an address or a contact number so they can help.
Over the past decade, readers have sent duffel bags of clothing, cribs and checks to homeless parents. You wrote more than $70,000 in checks to send an entire choir of 47 kids from Northwestern High School in Hyattsville to South Africa for a music festival. You helped pay for a talented burrito maker who sings opera to attend one of the nation’s most prestigious music schools. You bought a Pearl Harbor widow who lost her home to foreclosure the travel trailer she wanted to spend her last days in. One of you housed a homeless University of the District of Columbia student for a whole school year.
I am overwhelmed with gratitude for your actions, readers.
And remembering all this? It reminds me how much power we have in making a difference.
Because today, it’s easy to feel like 70 years have passed, and this is a different America from the one we cherish.
We recovered from the recession but may be heading into another one. D.C. has become increasingly white and one of the most expensive cities in the nation. The Obamas, who taught a master class in dignity and civility, have been replaced by a commander in chief who sows division and hatred with a daily tirade of insults. Homelessness is still with us, though the city finally shut down the abandoned hospital it was using to house families with nowhere to go. Relisha is still missing.
Ten years ago, most Americans had never heard of Sandy Hook Elementary or Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. We couldn’t imagine white supremacists and neo-Nazis carrying torches through Charlottesville or a Muslim kid arrested for bringing a clock to school.
It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the change in our country these past 10 years. But it’s also important to remember how often we do change.
If I’m lucky enough to write a 20-year anniversary column, I hope I’ll be writing about the first female president, the last homeless person to move off the street and into an affordable apartment, and how long it’s been since we had a mass shooting at one of our schools.
I know one thing won’t change: the generosity of readers. Thank you for being the ones who always make a difference.
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