02 November 2010

An Absentee Voter

Today is Election Day. It’s a day when millions upon millions of Americans will record their voices with their #2 pencils, sharpened by hope; and it’s the rare day when each voice is as loud as the next one, even the silent ones. It’s a day when men and women will vote for their dreams, and the dreams of many men and women will be crushed. And it’s a day when your mind is warmed by feelings you have rarely felt since your childhood; when you think the world can be a better place and you can make a difference. It’s a day that often reminds me of the first time I ran for public office. Earlier this year when I announced my ultimately-brief candidacy for lieutenant governor of Vermont, I wouldn’t be surprised if you thought it was my first attempt at politics. That’s because not many of you have known me long enough to know that it was actually my second political dance, the first happening nearly 25 years ago.

In elementary school, lives were made by how well you fit in and, conversely, lives were forever scarred by how much you didn’t. And, in elementary school, you didn’t fit in at least once a week no matter how hard you tried. I remember bumping into Jennifer Person* on the school bus, hearing her complain that I had given her an instant cooties infection, and holding in the tears long enough to step off of the bus. I remember the shame I felt when Jacob VanRyan* accused me of wearing the same pair of jeans two days in a row. And I’m still sheepishly embarrassed whenever I think back to the day a substitute teacher incorrectly read my name during roll call—replacing my last name with my unconventional middle one—and traumatized me to the point of seriously considering changing my legal name.

Elementary school was war and every day was a desperate battle to survive embarrassment, irrational or not. It was the front lines of recess and gym class. It was the pulling rank in the cafeteria. It was the mutiny of friendships. It was the daytime bombings of spelling bees. It was the better funded and supplied (read: dressed and ice-cream-cone-holding) popular officers and the underfunded lower-middle-class privates who pretended they didn’t want to buy ice cream. It was the general teachers executing those who didn’t do their homework. And if you were lucky enough to survive the day, you retreated to your bunker at home, distracted yourself with toys and comic books, and did your best to avoid talking about “what you learned” in school because what you learned was that life isn’t fair. And who wants to hear that answer?

By 6th grade, I resembled a shy Corporal Upham kid doing his best to avoid being caught in any cross hairs. After 5 full years of surviving, I was getting pretty good at it. Considering all of this, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one surprised by my whimsical decision to enter my name into the running for my 6th grade homeroom’s representative to the elementary school’s student government. Why on earth would I volunteer for such a dangerous social mission as a school election, you ask? Truth-be-told, I vaguely recall doing so because it appeared that no one else was going to run, which made me all the more distressed when I discovered that I would in fact be running against the four most popular kids in my class.

After the shock of my announcement wore off, my self-appointed campaign manager friend and I mapped out my campaign strategy (I decided to play the “I’m a great listener” card) and began polling constituents, which, in elementary school terms meant we asked our classmates who they were voting for. After the primary dust had settled, it was painfully obvious that I was going to need three or four more votes to win. I don’t remember much else of the campaign season; I have a hazy recollection of one or two of my opponents bringing in cookies. But what I clearly remember is what happened the day of the election.

In the hour before the polls opened, my classmates and I were in the music room, learning how to play xylophones. My friends and I (read: The Party to Elect Bungalow Benchly) sat in front of the alto xylophones while my opponents played the bass xylophones. Our teacher’s ultimate goal was to have us learn a song, but this became next to impossible when all four of my opponents began fooling around with their bass xylophones. After ignoring repeated requests from the teacher to behave, all four were sent to the principal’s office. Jackpot.

On the walk from the music room back to our classroom, my campaign manager implored me to take advantage of the recent turn of events by calling out my opponents on their immaturity and irresponsible behavior. My campaign committee went desk to desk to remind voters of my clean record and a few classmates mentioned their temptation to switch parties. When my four recently-disciplined opponents returned to the classroom, it was time for us to give our speeches and it was time for the class to hear my voice.

Each election day, in the voting booth, with pencil in hand, I think of platforms. I think of campaign promises. I think of issues carrying more weight than they probably should. I think of bribes. I think of mudslinging. I think of lies and half-truths. I think of scare tactics. I think of racism and sexism. I think of Nazi/Hitler/Communist/Death Panel name-calling. I think of lack of substance.

Each election day, as I prepare to vote, I’m reminded of that fateful afternoon in elementary school and the excitement I felt at the possibility of serving my classroom. I’m reminded of my opponents. I’m reminded of the election-cum-popularity contest. I’m reminded of the emotions I felt after the results were announced. I’m reminded that I lost by three or four votes. And I’m reminded that I opted not to sling mud at my opponents in my speech.

And then I write down the names of those whom I feel would best represent me in their respective offices. I vote for intelligence. I vote for responsibility. I vote for experience. I vote for ideas. I vote for change when need be and I vote for the same when things seem to be working. Lately, though, I haven’t wanted to vote for anyone.

*Actual name.

1 comment:

MaryBeth Hibbert said...

I agree with your thoughts and I too, had contemplated not voting. Then I think how blessed I am to have the right to vote and all the brave women who made that possible. It's hard to pick one person against another when everytime you read or hear candidates speak, negative remarks are made and hot topics are never answered. I'm sorry you had to put up with so many insensitive kids in school but I assure you, you have survived and conquered your fears, your past and surpassed all the Jacob's and Jennifer's in compassion. You're a good man...be very proud of it. I know I am!