The first Tuesday in November always brings great anticipation, anxiety, and, for me, elation. I love politics; I majored in both English and political science in college and at one time taught a high school Government class (in fact, I did so during Bush/Gore 2000 ― how quaint that battle now seems!). My husband is a fellow political hobbyist, which is not surprising since we met in a college political theory class. As we await the results of this election for the ages, the concern I share with so many about the civic health of our nation feels contrary to the excitement I feel each year in casting my vote, the most American of traditions that happens each first Tuesday in November, whether a presidential election or no.
My political involvement started early. As a sophomore in high school, I took the thoughtful leap of joining the Young Republicans because I had a crush on the club president. True story. (Genuine Admission: young Amy was easily impressionable.) Next thing I knew, I was calling senior citizens from a Reagan/Bush office phone bank asking them if they needed a ride to the polls on election day. One of my best friends was the president of the Young Democrats; we sat around our high school cafeteria table with our blue and red classmates arguing about issues like passionate teens do. Nothing we discussed impacted me ― or any of us, really ― directly. Reagan’s economic policies, his approach to foreign policy, his domestic agenda, these were abstract, not concrete, issues; it was easy to argue that the government shouldn’t give people handouts when none of us (or anyone we knew, for that matter) even qualified for free school lunches. As a result of my “committed” conservatism, I was invited to my first election night party at a hotel ballroom where I got to sing “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” at the top of my lungs with the rest of the merry Grand Old Party volunteers. I had no real investment in the issues; I was just having fun. My first lesson in privileged youth democracy was that politics was fun!
Naturally, as I got older, policies indeed began to impact me, whether in ways as large as the amount of money taken from my first paycheck (still remember the shock of that one) or as seemingly small as a state plastic bag ordinance. And thankfully, my political views began to take shape in ways more substantive than whether I liked the club president. When I left home and attended college and then graduate school, my eyes were opened to issues in a different way. As I read more, traveled and lived in different parts of the country, learned from great teachers who challenged me, and met people who experienced the impact of policies in ways I did not, my views changed ― and changed again. I’ve swung from right to left and back and forth throughout that time, depending on what I have learned and experienced, depending on the candidates, and depending on my changing identity not just as an individual but also as a spouse and a parent. I attended an event where I applauded conservative commentator George Will and another where I cheered liberal governor Howard Dean (remember him?) ― and at various times, I voted for candidates who were not a part of either major party. In sum, I have changed my positions as I have grown, learned, and lived.
And that’s why I never take for granted the inspiring political passion of a teenager, or the uncertainty they may possess as they are figuring it all out. I am not the same person politically as I was when I was 15, but it was my engagement in the American democratic experiment at that age that set me on the course of political engagement for a lifetime. A diverse, thoughtful, and challenging education at schools that exposed me to different views and different people made that change happen and turned my involvement from a spectator sport to a genuine desire for understanding the reasons behind those positions. Actual conversations with people who have different opinions, rather than relying on the single-lane perspective my Twitter feed provides, has been a crucial element of my political growth which will continue as long as I work at institutions where conversations about real issues take place in both structured and unstructured ways like they do at Loomis. In my view, this work is as important as anything we do at Loomis Chaffee: the education of citizens who are expected to listen to alternate points of view and yes, even change their minds as a result. Expecting and providing outlets for real civic engagement among teens is what builds the foundation for the future of our country, and with every conversation I have with my Thursday Advisory Group made up of students from Tennessee, Texas, Thailand, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and California, I feel confident that our students form their opinions based on thought rather than impulse ― and that they are open to change, because I’ve witnessed it happen.
Closer to home, it’s not surprising given their genetic makeup that my three daughters are political people, whether they would describe themselves that way or not. They have become significantly more so since attending Loomis, probably in part because of their increasing awareness of the world through this time in their lives. But I believe strongly that their understanding of the world and the issues they will encounter in the future has been shaped significantly by attending a school where politics is not allowed to remain in the abstract. At Loomis, students are invested in the political process and discussion of the issues our local and national governments are grappling with ― and most can’t even vote yet. I certainly wasn’t thinking about politics that way when I was our students’ age, despite my interest in it as a spectator sport. I was just having fun. My own Loomis daughter may not be able to vote yet, but she will be much better educated on the reality of political issues when she can. And that makes me grateful as both as a parent and as a citizen.