My First Political Act: The Donkey, The Elephant, and Da Bears

It was 1992 — a big year for me. We moved to a new town and I started second grade at a new school. “Newness” wasn’t really my thing, so the fact that I was drowning in change forced me to figure out how to swim.

Naturally, I took comfort in predictability. Watching dad work in the garage on Sundays and shout at the radio as he listened to his “crummy Chicago Bears” brought me much-needed solace. Just a season before, he was in the garage cheering on the White Sox, but he never got his hopes up, as they always “blew it after the All-Star break.” When election season started, a season I had never experienced before, watching Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, and Ross Perot compete from behind a podium only seemed to increase dad’s enthusiasm. It became our job to record Meet the Press on Sunday mornings for him, and as we watched it together Sunday evening, after the Bears played, the VHS allowed him to pause and answer my questions. I was curious as to why he could cheer on his candidate in one breath and bemoan him in the next. How could a man who was so fiercely loyal to his Chicago sports teams not fiercely defend his candidate at every opportunity?

The endless questions my dad fielded from me about the ideas of candidates and politicians and influential members of society during the 1992 election was certainly a testament to his patience; but it was also a cultivation of my first political act. I came to understand from my dad that politics was not just about picking sides. It was a rallying point, like my dad’s beloved Bears, but it transpired into something more because society’s interests could not just be about winning or losing. Politics, and citizenship, prompted excitement because it was about us, about every individual and about society as a whole. Becoming invested in the debate or in Tim Russert’s probing questions meant we could share a common focus without having to share a common perspective. We could ask ourselves the question, “So what? Why do we need to know this?” and get different answers that held equal importance to each one of us.

As a second grader, I couldn’t really understand what it meant to be political. But I had a great model in my dad, and his passion made it easy for me to see participating in the political process was important — important enough to record on VHS! Not even the beloved Bears received that special treatment. And now, as a slightly older, slightly wiser adult, I see that politics can help prompt citizenship in a way that promotes the common good in a tangible, real-world way.

The lessons I learned from watching my dad became difficult to reconcile in my personal life, as being a teacher meant remaining politically neutral in the eyes of my students. Yet, as I became a more “seasoned” teacher (as they say in the biz), my political activism emerged through my students. I could promote the common good by helping my students find what they believed in and commit deeply to a cause or an idea that spoke to them. By sharing more of myself and my own political journey — a journey that did not revolve around politics, per se, but one that challenged me to question what I believed in — I could be honest and authentic with my students about how I chose to act. And as they’re slowly discovering, it is incredibly powerful to own a belief and equally as powerful to question what you believe in.

My political journey began because my dad took the time to share his thoughts on our society and our government with me. My political journey continues as one that is intertwined with the curiosity and wonder of my students, and it is in their wonder that I am reminded my first political act never really ended.

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