At six years old, it was so exciting to take a walk in the evening with my parents. Even better, we were walking to my school for something I couldn’t understand, but knew was exciting. Instead of meeting classmates and their families in my classroom and getting cookies in the cafeteria at the end, we all lined up on the ramp leading into the cafeteria, just like at lunchtime…but with mom and dad. I can always remember them chatting with people they knew, mostly about politics or talking as if I couldn’t hear them about me “just going through a stage.” As if my current behavior were something requiring sheepish explaining that they just had to grin and bear momentarily. (I understand this better as a parent, but ouch!)
My anticipation would grow as we waited outside, matched only by my boredom when I was told to stop using the railing as a gymnastics bar. As we finally made our way inside, it felt like a sacred place. Unlike the friendly chatter outside, once we walked through the doorway, all was hushed and formal. It felt as if I should be wearing a velvet bric-a-brac party dress and black patent leather Mary Janes instead of my skating dress with sneakers from my afternoon practice. Getting a glimpse of those blue curtained polling booths always gave me a little thrill. What was in there? It looked like a secret little hideout. I was quickly corrected that it wasn’t and “get yourself up off that floor, young lady!” Once my parents obtained their ballots, I got to go into the polling booth with one of them. Or, for lack of clear memory, maybe I hopped from one to another. What I do clearly remember, is that I got to vote! I remember being instructed how to carefully place the marker, and pull the handle to punch the ballot. How important and grown up I felt! I scarcely remember the walk home. Likely by then I was cold and tired, and ready for a bath and bedtime. But the thrill of deviating from our evening routine, and the anticipation of participating in something so significant never left me.
The next morning during Carpet Time in class, Ms. Christiansen showed us the chart of 39 men who had been selected to hold our country’s highest position. She then told us that Ronald Reagan would be the 40th President of the United States. That moment is indelibly etched in my memory.
I have later memories of sitting at my grandparents’ house on Election Night. The television would be on so Grandma could see the returns. We would be sitting on the couch behind a tv tray, in the midst of a fierce Aggravation tournament. Grandpa would be out, volunteering as a poll worker. All these bits of memory come together as an instilled responsibility to participate in this system.
Four years ago, I took Hayden and Logan to the polls, waited in line with two bored and rambunctious children, then let them take turns punching the ballot for me. Honestly, it’s a nice change from them punching each other. That January, they heard President Obama’s speech at school, then again at home with us. They shared that excitement that something so amazing had happened. Today, they don’t remember any of that.
This morning we all rose about an hour earlier than usual. It’s Election Day! Despite the early hour, everyone was up, dressed and fed in record time. I had my moments last night when I thought maybe it would be better to just go on my own. It would be so much easier. They are going to be bored and be a total nuisance in line. I was correct about all of that…except one thing. It wouldn’t be better. This morning I took my oldest sons to the heart of our democracy, our local polling place. We arrived a little after 7:00am. Despite the early hour, there was already a line, and they were excited to see our neighbor, with one of her sons, toward the front of the line. I’d love to tell you that my kids behaved beautifully, calm and patient for the 15 minutes or so that we waited. I’d love to tell you all about their engaged interest as I filled them in on interesting information about our election system, propositions, and respect for people with differing opinions. I’d love to tell you all that. The truth is, they were a total pain in the ass. The only thing while waiting in line that truly got their attention were the foul-mouthed middle school kids, on campus and ready to start their day.
As we entered the auditorium, suddenly, their behavior completely changed. A calmness and interest in what we were doing took the place of body checking and mocking each other. As we were asked to clarify our address, they were quick to speak up. When I had to sign my name in the book, they were filled with wonder that I was on The Official List. Of course, it goes without saying that getting to work the ballot voting machine was the highlight. They nicely took turns, carefully following my instructions as to which selection to mark. They even examined the ballot at the end, concerned that it wasn’t completely filled out. Maybe we missed something! I told them that there could be more things to vote on, so this time it didn’t use all the columns on the ballot. They proudly took their stickers and we headed out the door. The moment we hit the sidewalk, the shoving, tripping and madness ensued. While we waited endlessly to get out of the parking lot they antagonized the crap out of each other. Business as usual. I guess the interior of the polling site still feels sacred, even without the blue curtains.
I have no remorse that I dropped them off late to school today. I feel proud to have them with me for something so important. I want them to be a part of this, and feel a connection and sense of belonging when the returns come in and we find out who won and what passed. And someday, I want them to reflect on their first conscious recollection of Election Day, and take my grandchildren with them to vote.