When I was young, I walked to school. Every day from September to May, I would put on my backpack and walk down the street, past the six houses that completed our block, over the wooden bridge that spanned the flood-control creekbank, its peeling paint and gaping floorboards terrifying, its underside certainly home to trolls, or snakes, or sixth-graders, and finally across the soccer field to the school building. Less than two city blocks, but it felt HUGE back then. Grown-up. Important.
The school building itself was fairly ordinary: classrooms, mostly, surrounding a gym where we spent a lot of time – lunch every day and physical education three days a week – and an auditorium where we spent very little. Ours wasn’t a big place for The Arts, so most days the auditorium sat empty and somewhat extraneous. Like a sixth toe, more novelty than useful.
Every other year, for one day in November, that changed. On that day, we were told to be extra quiet in the halls and ushered outside around the building, rather than through the auditorium, when going to and from gym, lunch and music class. Throughout the day there would be strange cars in the parking lot, adults we didn’t know bustling about and in and out. Despite the perfect opportunity for a civics lesson, I don’t recall ever being told what was happening on those days, other than perhaps that people were “voting.”
Fortunately, my mother wasn’t one to miss an opportunity. Always one to lead by example rather than oration, she picked me up after school and promptly lead me back around the building to the auditorium. I stood by her side in a room transformed into something purposeful, its usual aura of musty neglect transformed into something that felt consecrated, almost holy. Long tables piled with paperwork and clipboard lists of names stood near the doorway, and around the room, set tastefully apart and discreetly curtained with heavy green damask stood large, clunky box-machines like overgrown, metal, upright pianos.
Mom signed off on paperwork and took an instructional booklet; stepped into one of the machines with all the reverence of a confessional booth. Behind the curtain, the boxes had little levers instead of piano keys, each one representing a choice. She explained this to me – that she was picking the people she wanted to be our leaders, the people who would make our rules and laws. She explained that she chose the people she believed would be wise, and lead us with discernment and smart thinking. She did not, however, tell me their names. That wasn’t for me to worry about. Each of us made our own choice, and we didn’t have to agree with anyone else about it. It was personal and private.
She took me to vote with her several times over the years, once more to my elementary school, then later to a church, never talking much about it – just showing up and doing what she believed to be her basic civic duty. When I turned 18 and moved to another state for college, she made sure I got an absentee ballot so I could vote, for our president and for the first time. That November, she called me.
“Gretchen – I went to vote and your name was under mine and it was highlighted. I asked what that meant, and they said that meant that you had turned in your ballot. I just wanted you to know that they got it!”
In the years since then, there’ve been many, many school gymnasiums and church lobbies and neighborhood recreation centers, everyday places transformed with reverent purpose. I’ve stood in lines for hours with my friends and neighbors, waiting to exercise my privilege and duty as a citizen. I’ve never voted in the same place as my mom, and I’d wager that we’ve probably never voted for the same people. I vote for far greater reasons than “my mom told me to,” but I vote, and I care about that vote (and what happens after), because she showed me to.