Tuesday, November 04, 2008

My Mother's World

I voted for Barack Obama this morning.

No big surprise there for those who know me. But I lay awake this morning in the predawn hours thinking about the election and the many that have preceded it, and realized that this one really is something special.

For me, elections are all about my mom. Some of my earliest memories involve her taking me with her to vote. In our precinct, the polling place was almost always in the multipurpose room at the elementary school on our block. Later on, that would be my school, and I would use that room for lots of other things: glee club, band practice, concerts, talent shows, hot-dog lunches, tumbling class, rainy-day recess. Truly, it lived up to its name. But to me, the room always looked wrong without the red-, white-, and blue-striped voting booths around the sides.

I got it drilled into me very early that voting is not optional. Mom truly voted religiously. It's not like church where lots of people go only on the big holidays. If there was an election, even if it's "just" a runoff or a local primary or something small, you vote. And you don't just show up and cast a ballot, you learn the issues and cast an informed vote, even if that just meant you read the ballot pamphlet and recognized the arguments for or against a proposition and learned to recognize which supporters or opponents were out there grinding the same tired axes again.

But most of the time, we had a horse in the race. It might be a local bond measure or a slate of right-minded school board candidates or a proposition of local or statewide import, but there was pretty much always some cause we were either supporting or opposing. So election day wasn't just a one-day event. It was the culmination of a campaign that we had probably been involved in before it was even a campaign.

I learned early and personally of the dangers of single-issue politics. I recall vividly when a group won the majority on our local school board running on a platform of "neighborhood schools," which I now understand to have been a euphemism for segregation, couched in terms of not busing children to schools away from their homes. So they won, and they gutted the district's very successful integration program. Unfortunately, they had no particular interest or skill in actually running a school district, and the quality of education went down for all (but at least we didn't have to ride buses to our declining schools!).

And somewhere along the line, I realized that although there were ebbs and flows and issues that came and went, there are underlying themes to politics that transcend some of the apparent issues, and these core values are really the bedrock of my political beliefs.

Interestingly, both of my parents came from very conservative (in the old sense) backgrounds. But my mom came to realize that there were some social institutions that needed changing, and she was particularly moved by the civil rights movement. Her sense of fairness and equality was one of the things that came through loud and clear. I knew who Martin Luther King was and why he was important from a very early age.

So seeing Barack Obama on the threshold of the highest elected office in the land holds a particular poignancy for me. In so many ways, this represents the culmination of what my mother has worked very hard for most of her life and all of my life. So much has changed in her 80+ years, not all of it for the better, but I hope she takes particular satisfaction in today's election. I know I do.

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