Let’s show our children that elections make us better people

This piece was originally published in the Hill.

Day to day, many of us feel we have no power and no value in our lives. We struggle to get by. Then an election comes and tells us we are each powerful. Our opinion matters. Our voice matters. It reminds us that we are part of a community whose lives are tangled up in each other’s lives. I learned this from my fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Smith, and it’s a lesson I’m clinging to now as our country is in turmoil. We must prove to the next generation that they, too, will matter.

My fifth grade happened in 1992, when Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Ross Perot were running for president. It was a gentler time, but Mrs. Smith told our class to take the election seriously because so much was at stake. To encourage us, she said we would have an election in class. We each chose roles to play. Some were candidates, some campaign managers, some journalists. I ended up as Bill Clinton. One of my friends decided I needed a bodyguard and took that role. As kids, we imagined passions could get heated.

Mrs. Smith asked that we watch the news, presidential debates and prepare a speech on Election Day. I remember it vividly because it was the first time I understood that there was something important happening in the country and everyone had a role. I remember watching the news every day and feverishly taking notes on the campaign and the issues. I remember watching the debates from start to finish with my brother who complained bitterly that they were boring.

Frederick Riley in elementary school.
Frederick Riley in elementary school.

On Election Day, all three candidates dressed up to make last-ditch efforts to win votes with speeches about cafeteria food, clean bathrooms, extra recess and a list of other things that seemed so important to us growing up in Saginaw, Mich. We didn’t have a pandemic with lives lost, parents out of work, social distancing and virtual school. We didn’t have video in our heads of George Floyd’s killing and nationwide protests and white supremacist rallies. We didn’t talk about climate change causing hurricanes and devastating fires and displacing families.

I remember a lot about that 1992 election, the candidates, the scandals (most famously, Clinton’s) and the jokes about Ross Perot’s ears. I remember the news covering campaign events and speeches, but what I don’t remember is fighting, name-calling, chants of locking people up and family members who stopped talking to each other.

Election Day came and I won the election. After the votes were counted, quickly and peacefully, Mrs. Smith treated us to pizza for a celebration. There we were — candidates, campaign managers, journalists and bodyguards sitting next to each other sharing pizza, no matter how we voted — laughing about what we had gone through and had accomplished together. After lunch, we changed our clothes and went back to reading, art and math.

Today, many in our country are hurting, many are not talking to those on the other side, some are gloating, some are denying the election results, and some want the fighting and bitter division to continue to prove that Americans can’t get along and come together.

That’s why I’m thinking of my fifth-grade class. I feel we could learn a lot from it as we see so many people around the country so angry, resentful and full of hate. As fifth graders, we went back to our lives after the election recognizing that we all had a chance to argue and speak through our vote. We saw ourselves not as strangers in a fist fight, but as friends and family with more in common than the choices we made at the ballot box.

We trusted that no matter the outcome of the election, we ultimately wanted the same things — for us, that was recess, lunchtime and learning, which translated into security, a chance to grow and pursue dreams, and a sense that we were valued and valuable.

In any election, there is a lot at stake. Yet no matter the outcome, if we lose our trust in each other and our humanity, then we have lost all that’s at stake.

The real test comes now. An election has passed, but hunger, poverty, isolation, homelessness, unequal opportunity and injustice remain in communities throughout our country. They are not neighbors we must tolerate, but imposters that have lived among us too long.

The actual neighbors we must support are the people everywhere quietly helping tackle these problems. They show up for others every day, building trust, weaving connection and strengthening their communities. They are young and old, urban and rural, conservative and liberal, men and women of all ethnic backgrounds.

We will be judged on what we decide to do now, because somewhere there is a fifth-grade class watching all that’s happening. They will remember, vividly like I do, what happens next and whether we return to the pizza, the fourth of July parades, the hot dogs, the caring for each other and sense that we are all, deep down, Americans — people who want the same things and are willing to work together to achieve them.

Elections can make us better. Mrs. Smith is watching to see if this one does.

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