The day a new item popped up on my Facebook feed showing that Bernie Sanders would make a stop in my small town of Missoula, Montana, I knew without a doubt that I would have to take my daughter.
Earlier that day, she’d asked me, “Mom? Does it cost a lot to go to college?”
Mia is a planner. She spends the year carefully choosing what she will be for Halloween and has talked about her plans after high school extensively for several years. When she was 3, she wanted to live in an apartment over my garage. Lately she has talked about getting a van, a couple of golden retrievers and dirt-bagging it like some of our rock-climber friends have done in spurts from time to time.
“It depends,” I said. “You can get scholarships if you work really hard and keep getting good grades or play a sport really well.”
“Did it cost you a lot to go to college?”
We were driving, so I had a few seconds to come up with something to say. Mia had just turned 1 when I went back to school full time, and she watched me graduate when she was 6.
“Yeah, it cost me a lot to go to college,” I said.
I remembered, distinctly, the moment, as a junior in high school, that I approached my dad with a list of colleges I wanted to apply to. I wanted to be a special education teacher then, excited to live in dorms and be in a college-level choir. He’d turned to me, away from the computer where he sat balancing the checkbook to pay bills, and said, “How are you going to pay for that?”
For the next 20 minutes, he showed me their monthly budget and how little my parents had left over at the end of the month. I already worked two part-time jobs — one at an after-school kids’ program and as a busser at a fancy restaurant on the weekends. I started to cry and, in a dramatic, teenage girl fashion, retreated to my bedroom. My mom went to college after my little brother started kindergarten, and she graduated with her master’s when I was 12. If I went and graduated, I’d be the second person in my entire family to do so. But I went to work instead.
“How much did it cost?” Mia asked.
“Well, it cost me a lot because I had you to take care of and couldn’t work very much,” I said. “I got grants and scholarships, but I had to borrow money to pay for rent and all of that. So, it cost me about $60,000.”
“I’m not going,” she said.
“I really don’t think it would cost you that much,” I said, with no way of knowing that was true.
Then came the Facebook post about Bernie.
“He could be our next president,” I told Mia. “It’d be like meeting Obama right before he got elected the first time.” Fortunately she was pumped. There was a promise of a cupcake, pizza, and she did get to miss school.
More than 9,000 people showed up to see Bernie talk, outside, in the heart of town that day. We lined up at 9 a.m., three hours before he’d take the stage, the people behind us wrapping around for miles.
Mia got excited when we neared the front of the line and saw men in sunglasses, talking into the collars of their dark suits. We squeezed our way over to the right side of the stage and watched with excitement when several buses and black SUVs pulled up. Mia edged her way over to the gate after Bernie and his wife, Jane, walked to a tent 20 feet away from where we stood.
A co-chair of the university’s Native American Studies, Theodore Van Alst, got up to talk. Montana is home to 12 reservations, and tribal leaders stood and sat in VIP sections in the crowd, holding signs that said “Natives for Bernie.”
“I tell my kids,” Alst said, “you are the generation — the seventh generation — you are the ones who will make a difference, that will lead the way.”
I looked at my daughter, who was the seventh generation of my family on both sides to be born in a small valley of Northwest Washington, and she looked at me and smiled. She had on my “Bernin’ down the house” shirt and a temporary tattoo of a star on her cheek.
Bernie walked by her, just a few feet away. She took a video of him, and you can see him turn to her and smile.
Halfway through his speech, Bernie said, “We are listening to young people, and young people are asking me a very simple question, and it’s a question that impacts the lives of tens of millions of families. Everybody here knows that education and learning is an essential part of who we are as human beings. And our goal is to keep learning until the day we die.”
I brought Mia close to me and put my arms around her. She feels so solid these days, no longer the wiry kid who spent summers running around in leotards and tutus.
“I grew up in a family who didn’t have a lot of money, and my parents never went to college,” Bernie said. “You’ve got millions of kids whose families are struggling, whose parents never went to college. Many of these kids don’t know anybody who ever went to college, and they think, right now, in the fourth grade in Missoula, there’s no way in the world they’re ever going to get to college, because their family can’t afford it.”
I got a little choked up and hugged Mia a little. I could swear he was talking directly to us.
“What I want, and what is revolutionary, I want every child in this country today, regardless of his or her income, to understand that if they take school seriously, if they study hard, yes, they will get a college education regardless of their income.”
Bernie talked for more than an hour. At the end, we made our way to the front, just missing him pass by to shake hands. Then I looked over, and his wife Jane stood there, smiling, and took my hand. I’d read later that her daughter graduated from the University of Montana, where I’d gotten my degree two years ago.
Mia skipped as we walked away from the crowd. I wondered if anything had sunk in.
“What do you remember most about today?” I asked as we looked through pictures at home.
“That he said people should get $15 an hour and that college should be free,” Mia said. She paused. “Mom? Do you think that’ll happen?”
“I hope so,” I said.
“I hope so too,” she said.