October 25, 2012Dear Island Park Families,
With elections just around the corner, it’s time to talk politics. Don’t worry, I’m not going to pontificate about the virtues of one political party or another. Nor am I going to proffer or promote reasons to support causes or initiatives; no candidate endorsements either. I simply write as a steward of the democratic ideals and processes that our public schools are entrusted to teach and safeguard.
The importance of participating in the democratic process was instilled in me at a very early age. Every election year, my house was filled with lively political chatter as my parents debated the important issues of the day. They conveyed to their children the serious implications of political action and inaction. They insisted we watch the party conventions and the inherent drama that unfolded every four years. Back then, anything could happen as parties chose their presidential candidates and crafted platforms.
There are dozens of political moments indelibly etched in my childhood memory, but one of the most enduring and endearing is a family event that repeated itself every few years. My father had the responsibility of insuring that voting in our neighborhood polling place was on the up and up. While he never missed a day of work due to illness, on special November days, my dad lawfully played hooky so that he could fulfill his civic duty. He would leave home hours before the polls opened and return the following dawn after votes had been tabulated and certified. Around noon on Election Day, my mother would pack a picnic basket with egg salad sandwiches, fruit salad and a plastic thermos of hot tea. With children in tow, she would drive to the polling site to feed both her husband and the ballot box. My family would picnic in a back room, or outside if weather permitted, and then we would vote.
In an era before absentee ballots, flimsy fold-up voting carrels, and hanging chads, citizens actually entered a booth replete with curtains and connected levers to cast votes. I would go into the stately stall with my mom and hug her leg while she judiciously studied her ballot. Eventually she would lift me up to see how her political voice would forever be registered. Sometimes she would even give me the chance to flip one of the switches. Before leaving the booth, she would touch the voting board and whisper, “Good Luck.” Then she would remind me that when I grew older, I would have the opportunity to exercise my rights and responsibilities as a citizen of this great country.
I still take those rights and responsibilities very seriously, especially as a principal. One of the jobs of educators is to ensure that our students graduate from high school with a deep understanding and respect for our political system – warts and all. The classroom is a training ground where children learn how to participate in the democratic process. Through critical thinking, problem solving, respectful debate, and exposure to diverse opinions, children become informed citizens who learn how to ask pertinent questions, formulate defensible opinions to complex issues, and understand the responsibilities and limitations of power. Opportunities like classroom meetings, extra-curricular clubs and other group interactions teach our students that active participation is the most effective conduit for change.
Our role in school is not to inculcate or indoctrinate. It is simply to develop healthy, curious, wise young adults who can effectively become the guardians of our precious system of government. Thomas Jefferson said it best: Education is the foundation of democracy. An election year serves to remind us that we need to work hard to insure that the foundation remains strong and consists of building blocks that support the nurturing of stellar citizens. That’s something we can all endorse.