Wake up and do good

At first I wept, sobbing myself to sleep last Tuesday night when it became clear that hate would triumph over hope. Last Wednesday was gray and drizzly, and I spent the day at home half-heartedly grading papers while cycling between despair and rage. I wasn’t upset because my candidate lost, but because my country and fellow citizens had.

Together we are an ocean

While driving to campus last Thursday morning, I struggled with what to say to my students. It felt like an entirely different world since I had seen them on Election Day, when we had hoped to make history. My grief and anger were still raw: if we couldn’t shatter the glass ceiling, I told myself, then we’d just have to smash the whole goddamn patriarchy. But anger isn’t a plan, and my job is to teach, not sputter with inarticulate rage.

Unity

At some point between parking my car and walking into my morning class, I decided what I wanted. Instead of breaking things, I wanted to build things. Instead of letting my fears and anger turn into divisiveness–the very thing that swept our President-Elect into power–I’d turn my rage into awareness, my disappointment into determination, my fear into ferocity. I didn’t ask to be on the front line of a resistance, but in the aftermath of an election where a demagogue deceived the most vulnerable with hateful slogans and empty promises, teaching critical thinking is a revolutionary act.

Love trumps hate

Regardless of who’s in the Oval Office, I told my students, we’re the ones on the ground doing the real work of democracy. Now that the ballots have been counted, we’ll get down to business of protesting, letter-writing, and loving our neighbors. While others use rhetoric to divide, we’ll speak words of encouragement. And when we see hatred or bigotry, we will refuse to be idle bystanders. We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, and we’ll fight like hell to protect them. Regardless of who is in the Oval Office, we are the ones who will look hatred in the eye and say “Not on my watch.”

Don't despair, don't hate

Today’s photos come from a student-led Unity Walk and Hope-in-Action Rally at Framingham State. You can read more about the event here, and you can view additional pictures here.

Newton City Hall, right near Newton City Hall

When Massachusetts announced it would allow early voting this year, I wasn’t sure I wanted to take advantage of it. I like the annual ritual of walking to our local polling place after work on Election Day to vote alongside our neighbors, and I was afraid early voting would feel as impersonal as mailing in an absentee ballot.

Civic duty done.

I shouldn’t have worried. Today after lunch J and I walked to Newton City Hall to cast our early ballots, and along the way we saw a half dozen strangers sporting “I voted” stickers. One be-stickered man said hello as he and his partner passed, and his friendliness reminded me of the annual melting of New England resolve that happens on Marathon Monday. There’s something about doing your civic duty that makes even the most reticent New Englander a bit more cheery, whether that civic duty involves casting a ballot or cheering on passing runners.

He's with her.

At City Hall, a handful of volunteers stood outside with signs reminding us to vote yes to protect farm animals. Inside, a police officer sat quietly in a corner while a pair of election volunteers steered J and me to a check-in table where workers tapped our names into tablets, verified our address, and handed us a double-sided ballot and early-voting envelope.

There wasn’t a line to check in, but the dozen or more ballot booths lined along a nearby hallway were full. “At this rate,” an election worker told J as she applied a precinct sticker to his ballot envelope, “there won’t be anyone who hasn’t voted by election day.” Indeed, as of yesterday more than a tenth of all Newton voters had already cast their ballots, and who knows how many more voters will turnout before early voting ends on November 4th.

Newton City Hall, right near Newton City Hall

After I’d filled out my ballot and sealed it in its envelope, I had to wait at the ballot box while two adolescent girls in soccer uniforms politely asked the election volunteer if they could have a voting sticker even though they were clearly too young to register. The worker gave each of them two stickers: “One for this outfit, and one for your next.” Maybe in four years, these girls will be old enough to cast their own ballots, emboldened by the realization that they too can be President.

Newton City Hall

Today is Election Day, and for the first time in a half-dozen years, I won’t be walking to my local polling place. Now that I’ve switched my official residence from Keene to Newton, I’m registered to vote in Massachusetts…but since I teach in New Hampshire on Tuesdays, I voted via absentee ballot a week ago.

Newton War Memorial

I’ll miss voting in-person at my old polling place in Keene. As I described last year, my former polling place in Keene is the same place where my students vote, so there’s typically a line of young, first-time voters lined up to register, and this always strikes me as a cheerful sight: a tangible reminder of youthful hope and idealism in an age that too often feels jaded and cynical.

When you cast an absentee ballot, you miss out on the communal aspect of voting, with election volunteers checking your name off their rolls while other votes wait in line for their turn. When you cast an absentee ballot, you have an even greater sense of being just one vote–just one voice–in a sea of votes and voices. Dropping your ballot into a mailbox (like dropping your vote into a ballot box) feels like an act of faith: a love-letter to your fellow citizens that reads “I care enough to make my opinion known.” Wherever you live and wherever you vote, be sure to do so. Our country needs more love letters–more hope and idealism–and less jaded cynicism.

I snapped both of today’s pictures of the Newton City Hall and War Memorial on the sunny day last month when I applied for my absentee ballot.

The kiss

Now that both the hype and the hoopla of the Presidential election are over, it’s time for the Democrats and Republicans to kiss and make up, intent on solving the problems this seemingly interminable campaign occasionally brought into focus. Now that both the hype and the hoopla of the Presidential election are over, it’s time for Keene to become Keene again.

Discarded campaign signs

I’ve lived in New Hampshire for three Presidential elections: two in Keene and one in Hillsborough. In 2000, when my then-husband and I were newly arrived in Hillsborough, an acquaintance explained the basics of the political process here in the Granite State: “Every four years, the circus comes to town.” The “circus” this acquaintance referred to includes the candidates themselves, the necessary media entourage, and campaigners of every sort and stripe. Hillsborough was a small enough town, we didn’t get many door-to-door canvassers, houses being spread out and driveways being long. But we heard about the inevitable local photo-ops where visiting candidates posed over pie at the local diner, stopping long enough to eat some food, shake some hands, and kiss some babies. For independent and write-in candidates, the best way to get attention (or at least inspire a political conversation) was to stage elaborate or silly publicity stunts. During our first election season in New Hampshire, for instance, my then-husband and I were invited to one political house party where an otherwise unknown Presidential candidate staged a unique kind of photo-op, cleaning our hostess’ toilet while explaining the tenets of his political platform. What do you expect from a candidate whose campaign slogan was “Because everything is crappy”?

Obama and McCain

I’ve not been to any toilet-cleaning political parties since moving from Hillsborough, but Keene is thickly settled enough to attract lots of door-to-door canvassers leaving literature and looking to talk to undecided voters. Because I’m in Massachusetts on weekends and often on campus during my weekdays in Keene, I’m typically spared the worst of the unsolicited solicitors. Four years ago, when droves of Massachusetts Kerry-ites descended upon Keene, my upstairs neighbor was so besieged by Election-Day door-knockers–a half-dozen before noon–she taped a sign to our door saying “WE’VE VOTED: GO AWAY.” Although I understand the political zeal and sincerity of out-of-state canvassers, those of us who live in New Hampshire have typically had plenty of opportunities to meet the candidates themselves, so there’s a touch of arrogance (the political equivalent of white man’s burden?) to the out-of-state assumption that the citizens of New Hampshire need to be “educated” or even “enlightened” about the campaign that’s been raging in our own backyard.

Now that we’re settling into the routine of the mornings after the election, the political circus has pulled out of town right as the real work remains to be done. This year more than ever, politicians and American citizens alike have a “crappy” situation to deal with, and now we’re left with our own toilets to clean. Neither Barack Obama nor any other member of the Newly Elected has a magic toilet-brush with which to clean up the mess we current find ourselves sitting in. After the circus rolls out of town, it’s up to us regular folks–the folks who live here, wherever “here” happens to be–to do the dirty work this seemingly interminable campaign occasionally brought into focus. All any President can do is outline a plan, elicit action, inspire, and cajole.

Here's hoping

Because I live so close to Keene State, I share a polling place with anyone who lives on campus. That means during any given election, I see students lined up to register at the polls. Some of these students are registered in other New Hampshire towns but choose to vote in Keene, and others are brand-new voters, lured out of complacency and cynicism by the last-minute hope that they can make a difference.

I always get a bit choked up when I see students registering to vote. I remember the first time I voted: I was a college student in Toledo, Ohio, and voting seemed very grown-up and important. My parents are politically inactive, so voting wasn’t something I grew up with; the first time I voted, I felt like I was doing something mildly subversive, secret, and even forbidden: something my parents don’t do! I remember filling out my ballot very, very carefully, not wanting to mess it up: without having been raised to think this way, I somehow sensed that my private moment in a ballot booth was a sacred moment, a time when duty, responsibility, and hope culminated in the intimate act of setting pen to paper.

This morning at my polling place, there were several tables set up to process voter registrations, with two election volunteers at each table. During the time I stood in a short line waiting for my ballot, a steady stream of students stood, expectant and almost reverent, with forms and clipboards in hand while they waited their turn with a volunteer. “This is so exciting!” gushed one college-aged woman as she held her clipboard. At the table beside the line where I waited for my ballot, I overheard a seasoned election volunteer explain to a young African American man that he’d have to declare a party in case he wanted to vote in future primaries. “Is this your first time voting,” she asked, and he nodded. The volunteer beamed in response: “Well, it’s good to have you here!”

As one young woman finished her registration, another election volunteer pointed her to the next stage in the process: “Keep your energy up, because now you need to move to the last table, and they’ll give you a ballot.” As I got my ballot and walked toward a curtained booth, I saw yet another college-aged voter approach her own booth, a ballot in one hand and a skateboard in the other. These moments, as I said, always choke me up a bit. When I picture the “real America” that has been evoked so many times in this current campaign, this is exactly the scene I envision, with seasoned elders welcoming excited young people, black and white voting side by side, and there being enough room at the party for everyone to come as they are, even at the last minute, there always being a place for one, two, or countless more.

Veterans for Obama

I make a conscious effort not to talk politics in my classes. One of my best undergraduate teachers was a master at hiding her personal views on politics, religion, and philosophy, insisting that we students make up our own minds. Because of the lingering influence of that open-minded approach, I’ve always made a conscious effort not to proselytize my students in any way.

In New Hampshire during an election year, my students are already inundated with political propaganda. They’ve had numerous chances to meet the candidates, the candidates’ spouses, and other campaigners, and if my students live off campus, they’ve had local and out-of-state canvassers pounding down their doors trying to sway their vote. In class on Tuesday, I’ll remind my students to vote, and I’ll give them information on how to register at the polls if they’re New Hampshire residents and unregistered. But although I’ll remind them this is a historic election they’ll want to be a part of, I won’t tell them how to vote or even who I’m voting for: making up their minds is their job, not mine.

McCain/Palin

Last Thursday, however, I made a slight exception to my policy of “no politics in the classroom.” My Expository Writing class has been reading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, so since Pollan has been speaking out about the politics of food during this election year–and since my students have been wonderfully engaged with his book–I shared some recent Pollan-related resources. First, I shared the three blog entries (and photos) Fred First shared from his recent trip to Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm, a self-described “family owned, multi-generational, pasture-based, beyond organic, local-market farm” that figures prominently in Pollan’s book. Second, I encouraged students to read an article by Tom Philpott titled “Politics and the Dinner Table: Weighing Obama’s and McCain’s Stances on Food and Farm Policy,” which Pollan had recommended via his email list. And third, I encouraged students to read Pollan’s open letter to the next president, published in the New York Times and focusing on the issues of food policy that will necessarily preoccupy our next “Farmer in Chief.”

McSame - voted with Bush 90%

At the Google Zeitgeist Conference, Pollan gave a talk on “Serious Sustainability” in which he offered a 20-minute reprise of this New York Times article. In class last week, I showed my students a YouTube video of Pollan’s talk because I thought it was a great example of the kind of expository prose they’re trying to produce themselves in my class. Because Pollan as a journalist has so thoroughly steeped himself in food policy issues, he can offer a clear and concise summary of the “big idea” he explores in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, as well as its timely relevance in this election year. Regardless of what (or whether) my students have decided about the election, I wanted them to hear one thinker’s stance on how the food on our plates connects with Washington politics. Whether or not my students agree with Pollan’s perspective, I want them to see how a book they’ve read and discussed in class can apply to the “real world” with its political debates and complex controversies.

Imagine, then, how happy I was to discover this morning that Barack Obama not only read Pollan’s piece in the New York Times, he referred to Pollan’s argument in an interview with Time magazine’s political columnist Joe Klein (full transcript here):

Hope

There is no better potential driver that pervades all aspects of our economy than a new energy economy. I was just reading an article in the New York Times by Michael Pollen [sic] about food and the fact that our entire agricultural system is built on cheap oil. As a consequence, our agriculture sector actually is contributing more greenhouse gases than our transportation sector. And in the mean time, it’s creating monocultures that are vulnerable to national security threats, are now vulnerable to sky-high food prices or crashes in food prices, huge swings in commodity prices, and are partly responsible for the explosion in our healthcare costs because they’re contributing to type 2 diabetes, stroke and heart disease, obesity, all the things that are driving our huge explosion in healthcare costs. That’s just one sector of the economy. You think about the same thing is true on transportation. The same thing is true on how we construct our buildings. The same is true across the board.

Tomorrow in class, I’m going to point my students to Obama’s remarks not because I want to sway their vote but because I want them to see that the ideas they encounter in their classes can indeed have relevance in the larger political picture. Regardless of which candidate my students vote for, who wins, or how deeply Pollan’s remarks resonate in Washington, I want my students to know that they’ve read, thought about, and discussed a book whose ideas at least one Presidential candidate has grappled with as well. It’s heartening to think that the “food for thought” we’ve discussed this semester has influence far beyond our classroom walls.