Elections, Elections

Brookline Tab, December 2000

The presidential election fiasco calls to mind words like “selfishness,” and “childishness.” But perhaps if Al Gore and George Bush had acted more like children, and displayed some of the wonderful qualities I observed during one of our elementary school elections, things would not have gotten to the current state of affairs. We could learn a lot from the way school age children go about electing school council members and then carrying out their duties.

In this last school election, the class representatives had to come up with platforms and make speeches. I heard that the students who used humor in their speeches, and who promised to look into things that were actually within the realm of possibility, won. (No promises were made to fill the water fountains with soda, end all homework, etc.) One child rapped his way to victory. Another promised not to make fun of anyone’s ideas, and to find out if they could replace the old posters around the schools with new ones. An older student apparently gave a speech about how we should use the school’s extra resources and energy to help others less fortunate than ourselves: the welfare state has been reborn. There were no pie-in-the-sky promises, only reasonable ones; platforms such as listening to constituents, and community renewal. Perhaps George W. Bush is wrong to think that most of us want to hang onto any extra money we have and spend it individually. It’s not necessarily true in Brookline.

The class representatives, upon convening for the first time on Monday, learned that by attending their meetings, could earn service points from the school. This is much more than merely getting paid for showing up at a job; these kids are learning about responsibility, in that they are accountable not only to their classmates but to themselves. They must make up what they miss during the school day, after all. They are working for those points and they are performing a service for their constituents. Being useful to ones community is a great value for anyone to learn. Remember, ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country? These students are learning this firsthand.

The final assignment for the student reps was to come up with ideas for charities and causes for the school to donate to, thus presenting them with the dilemma of deciding how to spend surpluses, and instilling in the children the very key notion that by taking in money from the public the government can fund many important things that we all care about. They are also learning about giving back to society, something our squabbling national parties seem to have forgotten about.

The reps were also presented with the question of justice: If the seventh and eighth graders get to have a dance, what could the third, fourth, and fifth graders be allowed to do instead? This notion of how to make the less fortunate happy with their lot seemed to me to offer a perfect solution for our current electoral dilemma. Just imagine if the election winner was compelled to find out what the losing party could be given as compensation for not winning: some kind of national consolation prize, say, a plum committee chair position for that party? The Supreme Court Justice of their choice (no pun intended)?

When the students brought the consolation question back to their classmates and had a fruitful discussion, one third-grader came up with the idea of everyone bringing in a favorite toy and then everyone else would get to play with it. And we chide our candidates to stop acting like children! On the contrary, it seems to come pretty easily to many children to suggest sharing, to give to others, to listen to others, to seek to comfort others. Presumably we all started out this way, even Al Gore and George Bush. Where, along the way to adulthood and politics, did we go wrong?