Sunday, October 19, 2008

U.S. Schools Closing on Election Day

I used to wear flags...

Election Day was like a holiday in my house growing up--something anticipated and treated with reverence. It was not, however, a day off of school. Voting and civic duty was a big part of my parents' lives as I grew up, but they never talked about what they believed or who they would vote for. So my brother and I grew up in this almost apolitical civic-minded household, which, in hindsight, is probably the best thing I could have asked for. Election months were a time charged with thought and research, but never with opinions, so that I grew up discussing politics and asking questions, but never being told what to believe as true or right. In those pre-internet days, we tended to live somewhere far in the distance of others: in the mountains, in cornfields, in towns of 300 people if we were lucky. And my parents would always pull all the newspaper articles for the weeks before the election, reading up on each of the candidates and issues. The night before the election, after dinner, my mom and dad would sit down with the sample ballot from the newspaper and discuss with one another whom they would vote for.

I loved election days at school, all those adults coming and going, looking furrowed and serious, popping into the booths and the swoosh of the curtain as they pulled the lever. In Colorado, even when the snow would come crashing down and school would let out early because of weather (I remember this in junior high, especially), people would still come in, dust the huge flakes off of their shoulders, and vote. It made me want to be an adult, and it made me realize how people come together. Even when they do not believe the same thing, they still come together to participate in the same act. I loved voting and would wear my flag pin on election day. I was a bit of a dork, but so was everyone else. When we studied voter apathy in junior high, no one in my class could understand why people wouldn't vote. This was in the time of Desert Storm and we all thought being heard was vital. Perhaps at 14, you better understand not having a voice, and you don't take the opportunity for granted.

In the last Presidential Election, I was teaching creative writing one day a week at a south side elementary school. It was an awesomely diverse school- a pretty even mixture of Bosnian, Vietnamese, black, and white kids. I came into the classroom at 8am just as the bell rang, the day after the election. Walking into that 5th grade classroom was to understand the depth of impact Bush's second term would have. As the students were looking at a big map filled with red and blue states on the projector, crayons out to color the map, they whispered amongst themselves. And then, there was crying. They, at 11, wanted anything but Bush. One student asked me, "Why doesn't Bush care about poor people?" Those kids took the election seriously. Many were first generation Americans, and they were mad they didn't get a chance to vote or be heard. Others seemed to understand the implication of the election in a more personal way; the results meant their lives would not become easier anytime soon. If you had asked those kids anything about the political process, they knew the answer. They were vested, and the election affected them.

In the NY Times this morning, there was an article about schools closing on election day due to safety concerns. I often work in city schools and am quite used to the several steps of safety precautions, from metal detectors to cameras and several ID checks-- all practices which I understand. The concern is that using schools as polling places puts kids in jeopardy, and so many schools are keeping kids at home this November 4. I have several problems with this.

1. I have been in many schools with good safety practices over the past several years. I have been there on polling days. Typically, voters poll in the gym or an ancillary area that is separate from the main building, leaving no admittance for kids in, or for adults into the rest of the school. These types of polling places are usually very well patrolled and monitored. So if the concern is abduction, or strangers being admitted, this has been addressed for many years.

2. If a district is concerned about polling safety and kids, move the polling location. I vote in a nursing home. In other communities, I have voted in community centers and fire stations. There are other options in location.

3. My real concern is that this is a racially charged issue. Though it's not being stated, I fear that people are not concerned about simple post-9/11 and Columbine safety as they say, but that they are concerned that schools might be targeted because of the racial implications of this election.

It makes me heartsick that so many kids will miss the chance to see adults turn up and vote. That on such an important day in history, many of our nation's kids will be sitting at home like it is a holiday, not paying attention to the events that will affect them. By keeping kids out of school on election day, we are missing one of our best chances to show our nation's youth how civic duty works, to discuss the rights and responsibilities of being an American citizen. Those kids will miss out, but as a nation, we will lose even more.

Here's the article in the NY Times Education- Sunday Section

Other articles: Times-Herald op-ed (GA), Palm Beach parent (FLA), Illinois article, and a slew of other articles on Google

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