02/01/2009 11:41 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

One Family's Transformative Inauguration Lessons Learned

My good friend Amy Tavio surprised me with this honest and uplifting account of her family's impromptu trip to President Barack Obama's inauguration. Once Amy and her husband Timo made their spur-of-the-moment decision to witness the swearing in of our 44th president they loaded up the kids - Bridget (12), Isaac (9) and Matthew (4) - the car, and the cold weather clothes for the road trip from Savannah, Georgia to Washington DC.

Here via guest post is Amy's day-after-inauguration account of her family's experience and the insightful lessons they learned. I hope you find Amy's enthusiastic willingness to grow and learn as contagious as I do. - Karen

Lesson One (Bridget): Terrorists Win If We Fear "What-Ifs" and Forego LIVING!

After talking to Isaac's doctor, checking to see if we could book a hotel, etc., what started out as a "wouldn't it be nice if . . ." became a "wow, we're really doing this" moment. And, as I started to quickly pack duffle bags and make a shopping list, the reality of our decision hit Bridget and she dug in her heels, stuck out her lip, and gave me twenty different excuses of why we couldn't, shouldn't go. As we volleyed our way through the objections, it all came down to FEAR. She was convinced we were going to all go there and die . . . without a doubt she was certain we were headed to slaughter and terrorists would surely bomb us into oblivion, or we'd be trampled to death, or die of hypothermia.

She begrudgingly joined us, though I offered for her to stay behind with a friend. She texted her girlfriends her funeral wishes. She frowned and looked sullenly out the window, tuning our excitement out with her music. But, as you know, enthusiasm breeds enthusiasm, and soon she was talking with hesitant anticipation, as we shopped for boots and long underwear. Timidly, she was ready to learn.

The lesson began . . . not going would have been a victory for the terrorists. When we live our lives in fear of the "what ifs", we are robbed of the ability to truly experience life to its fullest. We miss out on great adventures to distant lands, friendships to be forged, and exotic new foods to please the palette. Be prepared, have a plan, use your head, and go for it. Living life on the sidelines may be safe and secure; but, I venture to say it is a life of boredom paved with regret.

Lesson Two (Isaac): Moving Beyond Me to WE

As we circled on the floor of the Pentagon City Mall next to the elevator, grateful for a bite of food and a place to warm up, we somehow ended up with six boxes of chicken nuggets instead of a six piece chicken nugget pack for Isaac when he implored he was still hungry. You'd have thought Isaac hit the lottery, or that we habitually starved the kid with how excited he was about having "extra" that he was confidently ready to take with him and eat later on the train, when we found one not too full to squeeze us in.

Luckily, the mall was attached to a Metro stop, so after regrouping, we headed into the underground tunnel to walk to our next adventure. We passed a homeless man, old and grizzled, gnarled and dirty, sitting on the side of the long, dark, chilly corridor, panhandling for change. We've all seen this man a thousand times. Maybe, if we are so inclined that day we hand over a dollar or two, often we just walk past without making eye contact. How often have we pulled out stereotypes and assumptions to make us feel better about ourselves for NOT helping . . ."He'll just use it to buy drugs or booze . . . he probably could get a job if he tried . . . he probably makes more money begging than he could working . . . he's just lazy, crazy, a bum, etc."

Bundled up and trying to keep our kids close to us, we walked past, all of us with the uneasy guilty feeling you can't totally erase in that situation. We stopped. "Isaac, go give that man your nuggets." Isaac looked up at me in disbelief, and then quickly scampered over with the bag outstretched. Bridget watched intently as the man took the bag, smiled a big toothless smile at Isaac and thanked him. Without missing a beat, the man opened the bag and feverishly began to eat.

As we walked to the train, Bridget said the truth we so often suppress, "Gee Mom, I think that guy really was a homeless man that was hungry 'cause he ate the chicken right then and there." We continued on our adventure and as I tucked the kids into bed that night, I asked them what they thought they'd remember the most. Their responses were to be expected, "Hearing Obama", "all the people cheering and waving flags", "walking all that way in the crowd in the cold." I said I'd remember Isaac feeding that man and the look of gratitude on his face as he offered his humble thanks.

The lesson began when Isaac asked, "Mommy, isn't that what President Obama was talking about today in his speech when he said that we need to take care of each other more?" Most street people really are down on their luck, really cold, really homeless, really hungry, and really have no hope or can see no way to a better life . . . they simply exist on the crumbs of humanity. 1 in 500 may be scamming the system, a raging alcoholic, or a drug user, but all too often we do not reach out because of our own judgment and worry that they may be that bad apple, and overlook that they are likely one of the remaining 499 instead.

Why? We are in an economic mess that most of us have never had to endure before in our lifetimes. Many, many more people than the homeless are simply one paycheck away from the street themselves, going to bed hungry, watering down the milk, and too proud to reach out. When they do, you know they have hit the end (like Debbie). They have relinquished their pride and taken a bit of hope in the compassion of a fellow American. If we can spare a dollar or a box of nuggets, shouldn't we?

Lesson Three (Timo and Amy): Burying the Remnants of Racism

This lesson is a painful one to admit, as in general, "we" like to consider our family a rather liberal and inclusive one. But the trip to DC taught us that we too harbored stereotypes and underlying racism that we were raised with and had not yet totally freed ourselves from. One on one, we are both pretty colorblind in our daily lives. We all have close friends who are black, Jewish, GLBT, etc. Yet expose us to a really large group that doesn't look like us, where we are in the minority, and we're definitely venturing outside our comfort zone.

Timo, from Finland, and I from Maine were not exposed to much racial or ethnic diversity in our youths. Timo went to college in Bridgeport, CT where the students were warned to stay on campus and away from the locals who were associated with gang violence and robbery. I was held up at gunpoint in my twenties at work by a sharply dressed, well spoken black man. For years, I would tense up when a black man stood behind me in a line. In our adulthood we've purposely, over time, worked to uncover and overcome the bits of racism we might still hold -- knowingly or subconsciously.

On the drive to DC, Timo and I were wondering if we would feel comfortable on the mall. We talked of how it was important to do this with our kids, to share this experience with them, that we are all Americans coming together as a country to acknowledge and celebrate an accomplishment that has indeed chipped away at the remnants of racism that do still exist in our society. It's funny how each generation does a better job of raising their children to be more accepting, even if they are still at times themselves faking it until they make it.

We instructed the kids on what to do if we got separated. We planned what little we would carry and how we'd keep it "safe". All our latent fear, all those deep-seated, unspoken stereotypes we still harbored were all bubbling up within us both.

All were completely unfounded! There, in the throngs, we were not black or white, we were excited, tearfully joyous, friendly, sociable, chatty Americans. On that mall, we transcended race. In the words of Will Smith, from today's USA Today, we were "no longer African Americans or Irish Americans" but simply a new race..."American".

The lesson continued . . . refreshed and exuberant we woke this morning in Dunn, North Carolina to a new day, shiny and bright, with that extra sense of promise, beauty, and hope that comes with a fresh layer of alabaster snow sticking to the tree branches and hillsides. We had our breakfast and hit the road, newspaper in hand, with a promise to the kids that we'd stop and play in the snow at the first rest area we came to. Reading the paper aloud in the car, we wanted to know if they had ventured a guess of how many people were there. We knew it was more than a million, had to be, with the crowd we had been in. There it was in print. Approximately 1.8 million people compacted themselves onto the mall (a new record). And, more impressively, as of 6 p.m. inauguration night there had not been a single arrest.

As promised, we stopped at the first rest area we came to and played in the snow. A young black mother from Polk County, Florida was also there with her four kids who were experiencing snow for the first time just like our youngest, Matthew. They too were headed home from the inauguration. As all the kids played together in the snow, they admired out little snowman and we talked about why we don't eat snow in public places. We chatted about the future, our kids, and our optimism. It takes courage to let go completely of that which we deny we hold within ourselves. But with effort, I think we can finally reach that tipping point where we do indeed move beyond. And it is freeing to go there. Still, it proved to Timo that the challenge to widen our embrace of diversity is never done, and that we as individuals are continual works in progress.

We don't all come from the same places, the same experiences, the same values, or the same belief systems. We are not all liberal or conservative, but are everywhere along the spectrum and I appreciate and value each of my friends and family members for their differences as well as that which we share in common. As hokey as it may sound, I do believe "change has come to America" and whether you chose this version of change or not, I encourage you to step out of your comfort zones and be a part of it. We have a whole lot of lessons ahead of us. And, I, for one, am excited to be a student!