On Voting in the Midterms at my Elementary School

On the morning of November 6th, 2018, it is raining heavily. This is a disappointment to me, because I have a mission to complete that day and I want to complete it as soon as possible. I also can’t help but fear that this terrible weather is a harbinger of a terrible outcome at the end of the day. On the other hand, the day of the last major election had started out beautiful and sunny, but had ended in disaster. The heavy rain the following day had reflected the overall mood of the nation.

Finally, at around 2pm the rain starts to let up. I put on a rain slicker, and walk out among the puddles and fallen leaves. It’s time for me to vote.

The path I’m walking is a familiar one. My destination is a place I have been to many times before, a place where I spent many days of my childhood. Yet it has been many years since I’ve set foot in the building.

I can’t help but question the wisdom of allowing the public to vote at an elementary school while school is in session. Ten years ago I wouldn’t have thought twice about such a practice, but a spate of national tragedies has made me see things in a horrifying new light. As I walk to my former elementary school to vote, I don’t know that the next day there will be a mass shooting at a bar in California, but if I’d been told that then I would not have been surprised. Mass shootings have become commonplace and expected. Our country has a major gun problem but most of the politicians in power won’t do anything about it. I wrote to a state representative about gun control earlier in the year and was pleasantly surprised to a get a response. I hope to vote for candidates who will advocate for gun control.

As the stone face of my elementary school comes in to view, so does the tiny Special Services building, which served as the town’s library when I was a small child. I made use of special services all through elementary school and beyond. When I entered Kindergarten, I had a diagnosis of elective mutism. That meant I could talk, and I often did talk with people I knew and was comfortable with, but with strangers or people I wasn’t comfortable with, I would remain silent or near-silent.

It is not lost on me that elective has the same root word as election, that as an adult I am going to symbolically make my voice heard at a place where as a child I often refused to literally make my voice heard.

I follow the signs pointing to the polling location and realize I am standing in back of my first grade classroom. The sign plastered on the window of my first grade classroom says “Vote Here” in English, Spanish and Chinese. Gazing in to the window, I can see the students sitting at their desks. I can’t help but remember that in 2012 a man walked in to a first grade classroom with a gun and murdered 20 children.

While some people have only blurred or faded memories of elementary school, mine are quite vivid. Wicoff School holds a special place in my heart, and I have many fond memories of it, but I also have some bad memories. The worst memories relate to complications from my elective mutism. They relate to times when I was too afraid to speak up for myself, to defend myself, to advocate for my basic needs.

That cluster of desks in my first grade classroom evokes memories of the little girls who sat at the desks that bordered mine, accusing me of cheating on my spelling test by copying their answers. Rather than accusing me directly, they complained about me amongst themselves and within my earshot. I wasn’t really cheating on my spelling test. I had no need to, as spelling was my strong suit, but rather than tell my classmates this, rather than defend my honor, I sat in silence, my head pressed down close to my paper, tears pooling in my eyes.

One time, in first grade music class, I had to go to the bathroom really badly, but I was too afraid to ask the teacher if I could leave the classroom. Finally, after about half an hour had passed, I stood up in front of the class and said I had to use the toilet. The words had barely left my mouth when a stream of urine trickled down down my jeans and gathered in a puddle on the music room floor. I had peed my pants in front of the whole class. I had waited until it was too late to make my voice heard.

****

When I was in Kindergarten, my father became a U.S. citizen. He had immigrated to the U.S. from Romania a few years before I was born. When he achieved his citizenship, my family threw a citizenship party for him in our home, which was located across the street from my elementary school. My father still lives in that house and I visit him frequently, so the elementary school is often on my radar. I see and hear the children playing and shouting on the playground.

My father’s citizenship party included red, white and blue streamers, miniature American flags and a cake that said “Congratulations.” My godmother composed a song about my father’s immigration journey and serenaded him as she played her guitar. I got the impression immigration was something to be celebrated.

In third grade my class went on a field trip to Ellis Island. I proudly pointed out the names of my father and sister on the wall of immigration and I traced over a sketching of them with a pencil and notebook paper. Of those children in my class who had a relative on the wall, none of them had a relative closer than a grandparent, but there I was with a parent and sibling on the wall. I got the impression that immigrants were welcomed in this country with open arms.

The public discourse on immigration has changed now. The president of our country ran on an anti-immigration platform, and he regularly flings vitriol at immigrants. The immigration wall in this country that gets the most coverage is the hypothetical one, which is being proposed to keep immigrants out. As his presidency progresses, the president’s rhetoric against immigrants becomes more brazen and outrageous. Now he’s proposing an end to birthright citizenship, meaning babies born on American soil to immigrant parents who are not American citizens would not be considered American citizens themselves.

I know that Trump’s ire toward immigrants and their families is really only directed at those with dark skin, so people like my father and I are ostensibly safe from its ramifications, at least for now. The Latin American immigrants who I teach ESL to are not so lucky. I hope to vote for candidates who will advocate for immigrants and push back against anti-immigrant policies.

***

I did not vote in the 2008 presidential election, because I was locked up in a mental hospital. By the time I left Wicoff School, I’d shed my diagnosis of elective mutism and learned to talk to strangers but throughout my life, I would be plagued by all kinds of developmental and mental health problems. In 2008 my mental health was at its absolute worst.

“Obama’s going to lose by one vote,” my mom joked, as she visited me in the mental hospital on election night.

Another diagnosis had recently been added to the litany of diagnoses I’d received throughout my lifetime: schizoaffective disorder. My behavior had become so bizarre, that doctors assumed I must be experiencing hallucinations and delusions. I was not. My behavior was a reaction to mental anguish that I could not voice.

The doctors asked my mother if she wanted to become my legal guardian. My mother elected not to do that, but if she had, my right to vote may have been taken away.

***

When I was in elementary school, I had no way of knowing what the world would be like once I reached adulthood. I had no way of knowing that an invention called Facebook would allow me to reconnect with some of my classmates and teachers from elementary school. I had no way of knowing that the day of the 2018 midterm elections, Facebook would also allow me to have an argument with strangers over the importance of voting.

I had no way of knowing that one day my country would elect a president who had less maturity and self-awareness than most of my elementary school classmates and who displayed behavior that would not be tolerated at my elementary school. I had no way of knowing that one day I would see my country threatened by a mainstream agenda that went against all the morals, values, and even the science I was learning in elementary school. I had no way of knowing that one day I would return to my elementary school to vote.

As I step in to the voting booth and use my fingers to light up a vertical row of X’s in the column that says Democrat, I have no way of knowing how the midterm election is going to turn out. But I’m glad I’ve made my voice heard.

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A March for Our Lives in March

I went to my first March last Saturday. It wasn’t the one in Washington but there was a local one that I decided I wanted to go to at the last minute. I didn’t have a sign so I wasn’t sure if it would be appropriate for me to go but I asked about it on Facebook and was assured that marchers without signs were welcome.

The crowd was large and parking was hard to find. People of all ages were there from babies to senior citizens. The bottom of one kid’s sign said “Babies against guns”. The top said “My right to live is above all rights.” His brother’s sign said “NRA go away.”

Other signs carried by children said “I can’t have peanut butter in school but you can have guns?”, “Arms are for hugging”, “School is to get an education not murdered”, “My life is more important than your gun” and “No guns, for safe schools.”

Adolescents and young adults held signs that said Protect kids, not guns, One life is worth more than all the guns on earth” “Students call BS”, and “18th century laws can’t regulate 21st century weapons.”

I took a picture of a “No more school shootings” sign perched atop an empty stroller. A woman commented that it was a good picture and I asked if I could take a picture of her sign, which read “I’m a ballet teacher. Should I carry a gun too?” with a picture of little girls in tu- tus next to a picture of a pink gun. Other signs that commented on the ridiculousness of arming teachers included “Bullets are not school supplies” and “Arm teachers with pencils not guns.”

A middle aged woman held up a sign with a picture of Maria from The Sound of Music that said”The Schools are alive with the sound of bullets.” A woman standing on the remnants of a dirty snow bank held a bright red sign that said “SOS save our schools from gun violence.” A man held up a sign that said “Taught not Shot.”  A woman standing next to him held up a sign that said “Finally a pro-life rally I can attend.” Then there was the woman whose sign had a list of things that were regulated more than guns: Alcohol, Sudafed, lawn darts, Roquefort cheese, Kindereggs, cars, fireworks and her uterus.

Older adults held up signs that said “Guns kill. Period”, “We are the majority”, “Choose life. Tighten gun laws” and “Resist, insist, persist, vote.”

There were signs calling out the NRA. One sign had NRA standing for national recall of arms. Another sign had it standing for no responsibility for arms (or children.)  There was a sign that said Ditch NRA or ditch office, a sign that said NRA, let go of my country  and a sign that said “The NRA can kiss my ass. Your blood money ends now. ” The most darkly funny sign said “Who’s afraid of the NRA? with the NRA as the big bad wolf and Donald Trump, Mitch Mcconnell and Paul Ryan as the three little pigs.

There were several signs pointing out that what we need is action and change, not thoughts and prayers. There were signs that stressed the importance of voting.  A woman wearing a shirt with the word Change beneath Obama’s picture was carrying a sign that said “I demand gun control and I vote!” I saw a sign laying on a table that said “We’re with the teens.  Get out and vote!” There was a sign that simply said “Vote, vote, vote” over and over again.

Some signs kept their messages simple but powerful.  There was a sign that said Disarm Hate.  There were signs that consisted of one word : Enough.

Another one-word sign simply said Love. And in the midst of all the anger and indignation at that rally there was a lot of love. People hugged, held hands, draped their arms around each other, carried one another on their backs.

There were signs that listed the names of the Parkland victims and signs that displayed the pictures of the Parkland survivors who are acting as advocates for gun control. While I was participating in a local march, those survivors were participating in the national march in Washington D.C. where they gave moving and eloquent speeches. They were mostly lauded for their bravery but some rabid defenders of the second amendment had a real problem with them exercising their first amendment rights.  I never would have thought anyone would have a problem with survivors of a horrific tragedy taking action to prevent such a tragedy from happening again, much less target those survivors in a cruel manner but these are interesting times we’re living in.

In addition to the signs, there were also powerful speakers at this rally. One young man described his terrifying experience as a student in a school that had an active shooter.  He sat huddled under a desk wondering if he was going to die. He pointed out that the shooter was not a bullied social outcast as the media stereotype would have you believe. Another young man discussed an aspect of gun violence that doesn’t get as much media attention: suicide. He described a friend of his who died of suicide by gun. He argued that although it’s commonly believed that people who commit suicide want to die, the truth is most of them don’t want to die. It is an impulsive act of desperation, as evidenced by the fact that most suicide attempt survivors do not try again. I’ve often felt depressed and thought about wanting to die but I’ve never attempted suicide or formulated a plan. I wonder if things would have been different had I had access to a gun.

When the talk became about the politicians who bow to the NRA, the crowd chanted “Vote them out! Vote them out!” Acknowledging that he felt awkward taking the stage amidst those cries, a New Jersey state representative explained that although he owns a gun, he supports gun control laws and will not bow to the NRA. I have no interest in owning or using a gun myself but I appreciate the voice of reasonable gun owners in the gun control debate. I’m annoyed that it’s even a debate to begin with. Gun control just seems like common sense to me and those feelings were obviously shared by a woman carrying a sign that said “Pass common sense gun control laws”. Another sign that sums up my feelings well said “Sensible gun laws!  Save lives. Don’t violate the second amendment. Worth the “hassle”. Arrrrgh.”

As the speaker portion of the march drew to a close we were reminded that we shouldn’t just go home, feel good that we participated in a march and then do nothing else. We need to take other actions as well, such as writing to our representatives and voting in upcoming elections. About a month before the march I wrote a letter to one of my representatives about the gun problem and a few weeks later I was pleasantly surprised to get a response, outlining the steps he was taking to address it.

“Do you want to visit your brother? He’s here” my father said as we left the march.  At first I had no idea what he was talking about. Then I realized we were walking by the cemetery where my stepbrother is buried. My stepbrother did not die of a gunshot wound but he did die tragically and unexpectedly at a young age, as did the kids whose lives were ended by bullets ringing out in the hallways of their schools-in Parkland, in Columbine, in Sandy Hook and in so many other schools throughout our nation. As did those whose lives were ended by guns shot by madmen at a concert in Las Vegas, at a club in Orlando, or at a movie theater in Colorado. As did those who were shot in their church or in their own home by a relative, by a friend, by an enemy or by their own hand. My stepbrother was a victim of another poorly handled and hotly debated epidemic that is sweeping this nation-the opioid epidemic.

Afterwards I discovered that several of my friends also attended the march but I did not see any of them them there, probably because the crowd was so large. Although I could not kid myself in to thinking I had made a big difference in my country’s gun violence problem, I allowed myself to feel good about the fact that I had participated in my local March for Life. It was an energizing, valuable and worthwhile experience. I look forward to my next march.

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