Friday, November 7, 2008

My Two Cents Worth

By now, most people are probably tired of hearing about the unifying factor of our Presidential election. Yes, time will tell. But today we’re in that Honeymoon period of hey-we’re-happy-because-anything-IS-possible. Given the downward spiral we’ve witnessed lately, any reason to feel hopeful is a welcome change. In line on Election Day it occurred to me I was about to experience history in a historical place: the birthplace of what became known as Brown vs. the Board of Education. I was standing in a school with a segment of the population who, fifty years ago, wouldn’t have been allowed to stand in the same line, much less attend the same schools as me.

Boggles the mind to be confronted with those images in this day and age.

In front of me was a black woman about 65, behind me a black man a few years older. Growing up here, they’d live in an era where they were forced to walk to school in the rain… as a school bus passed them by, taking the white kids to school. Because their parents had stood up for what was right, I was one of the first kids to attend school with children who didn’t look like me. For my first 6 years of school, there were only 3 black kids in my grade. But I still remember them. Shy Emily Peterson, feisty Gloria Patterson and studious Emmanuel Willis. In the 6th grade I went home and declared that Emmanuel was going to be President of the United States. When Mom asked why, my answer was simple: because he’s the smartest kid in my class.

In my precinct even at midday, I’m usually one of the first 12 voters. At 10 a.m. election day, I was #197. Nice change. As I waited, I witnessed a pictorial demographic of my community. Young and old, black and white, single, couples with children, a woman pushing her husband in a wheelchair, complete with oxygen tank. No one complained about the wait. I’m not sure we were even aware of time. Everyone talked to their neighbors in line, even if they weren’t their neighbor from next door. The woman in front of me hesitantly asked why some people had a piece of green paper. I explained it was a copy of the Constitutional amendments, which some people liked to read again before voting since they were written “in lawyer, not English”. She laughed and thanked me. The gentleman behind me, who introduced himself as Mr. Wilson, said I was smart. I laughed, replying that I’d once been Director of Elections in another county and my job had included ensuring people understood the voting process. I made some off hand comment about voters doing their homework. Several people nodded in agreement.

Funny, any other day I bet one of them would’ve suggested I mind my own business. But not election day.

Talking didn’t just pass the time, it aided in discovering how people think. Ironically, no one discussed their candidate. Instead they shared fears and concerns, with conversations usually ending with hopes and dreams.

“I have a dream,” I thought with a smile. I was born the same day as Dr. King, you know. He would’ve been proud of our line. Historically speaking.

You see, walking through the front door morphed you from “individual” into “welcome to the group”. What a cooperative lot we became! A woman, discovering she’d left her registration card in the car, was forced to step out of line. Upon returning, the line had doubled. She smirked, “Well, you move you lose.”

“No you don’t!” called the woman who’d been behind her. “You come right back over here.” Everyone nodded. After 25 minutes of waiting Mr. Wilson had to slip off to the bathroom. Mr. Palmer, who was behind Wilson, offered, “Don’t worry, we’ll keep your place,” as he pointed from me to him. And we did.

Approaching our target, we were met by a harried poll worker concerned about maintaining order in our orderly line. Without explanation, he began demanding last names. The woman in front offered hers timidly, looking concerned. I gave the first letter of my last name and the worker nodded for me to stay put. He pointed for Mr. Wilson to go past me, into the next line. Mr. Wilson balked, “I can’t go ahead of her! That’s not fair.” The worker merely hustled Mr. Palmer in behind Mr. Wilson and kept moving down the line. I had to fight not to laugh when both men refused to move. I explained that during large elections, the name list is split alphabetically to speed up the process. The woman in front of me sighed in relief. The gentlemen then stepped into the proper line with a polite nod.

Cooperation is truly a natural state. If you just smile.

Just as a machine opened up for me, Mr. Palmer stepped forward eagerly. I wasn’t angry. I understood. He was another older black man who’d had to wait all his life at the end of some line. I was happy to see someone so excited to vote… who understood one vote actually means something.

Unfortunately, he got caught.

The woman in charge huffed at Mr. Palmer to get back in line. Looking somewhere between hurt and apologetic, he glanced at me. The worker huffed, “Oh no! Line cutting will not happen on my watch!”

Smiling at her I offered kindly, “Oh, he didn’t meant to. I’m just short. Hard to see me in a crowd.”

She motioned me forward with a shake of the head…and a grin. Mr. Palmer winked and was escorted to the next machine.

Ironically the only out-of-place moment in all this togetherness was due to, of all people, the educated. Well, the educated-in-training. Two young black women with a pre-printed list were stopping voters to ask two questions: [1] is this your first time voting? [2] who did you vote for? I watched them for quite a while, wondering if it was a college project or if they were part of someone’s political party. I was surprised to realize they were only polling black voters. That, of course, made my curiosity kick in. As I approached the exit, they took one look at me and literally turned away. They stopped Mr. Wilson. As I left, he was wondering out loud why they hadn’t talked to me.

They’re young, Mr. Wilson, I thought silently. They'll learn. Once they’re in the real world, they’ll realize we’re all connected. Your parents fought to change your world and changed mine too. Every day I work with kids, many from low income homes with parents who don’t care, to ensure they receive an education too. Education, plus the knowledge they can grow up to be whatever they want. Like President. It takes all of us to make a difference.

No matter what the polls say.

Driving away, I found myself wondering what Emmanuel Willis was thinking about this historic day. Because I was thinking about him. I’d chosen him as my potential presidential candidate because his grey matter was sharper than mine. At least on math tests. The color of his skin never entered my mind.

Emmanuel, aren’t we lucky to have grown up in a time where anything really IS possible?


Poetikat said...

This is a really strong post, Hope. As a Canadian, you have really put me in the picture of your experience. It was like a movie playing out in my mind.

Don't be surprised if Emmanuel (assuming you're using a real name) lands on your blog. I had that happen recently on mine - with a boy who lived on my street for a while when we were kids. Freaked me out!!


Susan said...

Oh, I loved this post! Even though we couldn't vote, many of us in Europe were glued to the television sets on Tuesday--it's wonderful to now 'live' the voting process with you.

I was travelling on Tuesday night, and in Belgium a customs official stopped me, very stern:
I gave it to him.
"Dublin, Ireland"
"Length of stay?"
"I live there."
That stopped me, but as I wondered he looked up, and winked, so I said, "Oh, you mean PRESIDENT Obama."
"Right," he said, and then handed back my passport. It was a laugh, but it did feel like a day in history, definitely.

hope said...

poetikat, the funny thing is, Emmanuel did get to Washington, a podiatrist. :)

I heard recently that he's moved back to our original hometown to open a practice. Hope I don't need any foot work, but it's nice to know he succeeded in his own right.

Poetikat said...

Hi Hope, I'm pleased you've connected with Blasts from the Past. I think there are many of us who went through similar things and yes, we should start a "Plain girl w/ Pretty girl friend" club.


See you soon!

Rachel Fox said...

It is a great post. I know you wrote recently about journalism and not feeling like a journalist...but there are lots of different kinds of journalism and whilst you may not be made to write hard bang-it-out-quick news you do write a very good 'ordinary woman out in the world' type of observational news. Very good eye for detail.

hope said...

Thank you. Human interest stories have always been my favorite.

Now, to parlay that into a career, not a series of volunteer efforts. :)