Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Thoughts on Voting

I voted today at P.S. 80, on the corner or St. Marks and Underhill in Prospect Heights. I've always felt that voting in elementary school gymnasiums lends a kind of levity to the whole process, and my experience today was no exception. As I stood in the line for district 43 (five times as long as any other district's lines -- why does that always seem to happen?), I looked around at inspirational sayings stenciled on the walls: "It's not whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game;" "If at first you don't succeed, try try again" (Ross Perot's slogan?); and, my personal favorite, "Just Do It" (meant, I guess, to be powerful but also likely the exhausted refrain of teachers the world over). I felt all democratic as I stood amongst iPod shuffling hipsters, septuagenarians, and stroller-bearing stay-at-home dads of all ages and races. I listened to the almost violent clanging of the voting lever, watching the little green lights go on as each person cast his or her vote. Always the judgmental curmudgeon, I found myself glaring at certain people who I felt sure, based on their clothes and general demeanors, were Hillary supporters, or -- so much worse! -- republicans. I was getting cranky after 15 minutes of line-standing coupled with oppressive steam heat when the PA system crackled to life. It was the school's principal, welcoming the students to school (half an hour late). She gave some standard announcements and then said, "As you all know, February is Black History Month, so to celebrate I am going to share with you the words of Reverend Jesse Jackson, speaking in 1984 at the Democratic National Convention." And then she read:

Our flag is red, white and blue, but our nation is a rainbow -- red, yellow, brown, black and white. America is not like a blanket -- one piece of unbroken cloth, the same color, the same texture, the same size. America is more like a quilt: many patches, many pieces, many colors, many sizes, all woven and held together by a common thread.

Even in our fractured state, all of us count and fit somewhere. We have proven that we can survive without each other. But we have not proven that we can win and make progress without each other. We must come together.

She finished by saying, "Remember that what we do today will make a difference tomorrow."

I'm not sure if she could have chosen a better passage to read on a day that will decide so much in the coming election and over the coming years in America. I'm not sure if the kids got the underlying message. But, twenty-three years later Jackson's words have only gained power and relevance, and hearing those words as I waited in line to cast my (however small, however hopeful) vote made me feel incredibly lucky, as though some higher power knew that I had been feeling disillusioned and decided to perk me up. A friend of mine put it best when she said today that she'd gladly cast a vote for Hillary in the general election, but "it will be with cynicism and and a sense of inevitable continued national decline". I too have worries that Hillary, however well-meaning, will not bring about much change in the way politics run in this country. I truly believe that Obama is the kind of politician who comes around once in a generation. I and my other not-quite-Gen-X, not-quite-Gen-Y friends feel that he is our .... savior, for lack of a better word. He is our hope. We feel like if we miss him this time, we may never get another like him. And I feel scared to watch the primary returns tonight. I feel scared that Hillary will emerge victorious and that my great hope will fade to disappointed acceptance. But hearing that principal speak those eerily prescient words made me feel that all hope is not lost, that the message of unity, hope, and change has been around for a long time and will not die if Obama fails to take the oath of office in January. The message remains, and it will only grow stronger, and louder, with the passing years. Someday I hope I am around to see it find a majority voice.

Finally, because I'm getting a little sappy, I think that any person who does not vote should get a hard kick in the ass, from me personally. It makes me so angry when people don't vote that I have to watch American Idol just to anesthetize my brain. True story.

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