Tuesday, November 2, 2010

A Walking Dialogue on Government

I had a fabulous experience this afternoon.  Voting days are always special to me (especially coming from DC), and I never, NEVER miss voting--not primaries, not run-offs, and especially days when we had as many offices and judges to vote on as we did in Wake County, NC today.  Voting to me is a right and a responsibility, a duty and a joy, an honor and a privilege, and a celebration and expression of what it is to be an American.  And I feel that way whether or not my candidates are flying in the polls or, as is the case this year, looking like they won't be the winners this time around.

And ever since my son was born, he has accompanied me to every vote on every election.  With the low numbers of young people voting (although that figure certainly went up in the last presidential election), I hope that I can convey to him what a gift it is to be able to vote, and that he will come to participate as whole-heartedly as I do.  So we have tended to make Election Day kind of a party day, and we usually have a special lunch or dinner or something to make it a festive occasion (in addition to getting to stand in line, fill out our ballet, insert it in the machine, and proudly wear our "I Voted" sticker for the rest of the day).

But now that he is a middle schooler, he is beginning to think about these things a little more carefully.  I showed him the voters guide and we talked about it some, but I think he was intimidated by the idea of making the right choice for all these different offices (and frankly, as at least of couple of us were discussing at a curriculum planning meeting tonight, we adults are too).  So he was asking about how he would be able to understand all the policies and issues involved when he was older so that he could make an informed vote.

Our polling site is about a mile away from our house, and since it was a beautiful autumn day, I decided we would put our "school work" aside and walk over there.  Walking is better for the environment (he did say that I should vote for the candidate who would protect the trees), better for our health, and better for making this a more memorable occasion.

What I didn't realize was that walking would be a better time for us to discuss the many topics related to today's vote.  We discussed the branches of government, the rotating system of who gets elected when and how it is designed to always have some continuity and have some change, and the system of checks and balances build into the American system of government.  We talked about the different levels of courts and why why we were voting for so many different offices--federal, state, and county (our town elections are held on off years).  We reviewed some of what we had studied last year about the Constitution and explored what areas it covers and what it doesn't.  We also brought up the fact that today the U.S. Supreme Court was hearing arguments about the constitutionality of the California law banning the sale of violent video games to minors (a topic I discussed in a previous post) and what "free speech" really means.  We walked by a sign in one neighbor's yard that was saying something derogatory about the national Speaker of the House, and noted that was covered by the free speech clause.  But what if it said something bad about the U.S. President?  What if it urged violence against the President?  And how does the new technology effect the idea of free speech in general?

And to top it off, these dialogues were also interspersed with him pointing out various plants that he has been learning about in the nature hikes led by a local biologist that we've been taking this month.

In short, we put aside our work to enjoy this day of civic involvement.  But I bet it also ends up being one of the most educational discussions we have all week.  It's a great reminder, when we find ourselves caught up with curriculum planning and enrolling our children in educational programs and participating in extracurriculur activities, etc., that, to paraphrase John Lennon,  sometimes learning, just like life, is what happens to you when you're busy making other plans.

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