Making Choices for Our Children

MY husband and I are sitting on a window ledge at the local high school, nervously looking over a classroom packed with other adults. It's the night of the Democratic Party caucuses in our town, and we're all crowded into this particular classroom to select our ward's candidates for the city council and the school board. The turnout is larger than expected because, for the first time in 10 years, there's a contested election in our ward for the school board candidate. As it happens, two mothers are running against each other. The current representative, a nurse, is being challenged by a bookkeeper who wants to change the AIDS-prevention program in the high school.

As we wait, I look around the classroom. It's hard to tell what students learn here. In the upper right-hand corner of the green chalkboard there's a neatly written Spanish assignment, but the walls hold no lists of Spanish verbs, no posters depicting bullfights or fiestas, nothing to entice adolescents with promises of the worlds a foreign language can open for them. Two nondescript nature posters and a large sign giving the dates of high school sports events provide the barest decoration.

Possibly the Spanish class only met here once, I think, and then my mind travels back to an ancient lecture hall at the University of Munich where I studied German literature for a year. For my class in Romantic poetry, every seat in the huge hall was always taken, so latecomers either stood in the back, or (the bold ones, I decided) hoisted themselves up onto a ledge below tall, narrow windows. I particularly remember one group of young men, dressed in olive-green and black, who squatted next to the windows like a small flock of handsome ravens, bent over their notebooks, scribbling away. Elsewhere in the hall several of the women students knitted, and the clack of their needles wove in and out of the professor's lecture.

It was in Munich that I first became aware of my responsibility to become involved in politics. This was the fall of 1966, and a neo-Nazi group had just won seats in a state election. Alarmed by the rise of this neo-Fascist group, students and other residents of the city marched through the downtown streets in protest, and some American friends and I joined them. We'd all been studying the Third Reich and were all too aware what it had meant in the 1930's for ordinary Germans to ignore what was happening to their country. The previous spring in Boston, I had stood on the sidewalk and watched an anti-Vietnam march, but I didn't know much about the Vietnam War then, and it had never occurred to me that I should participate in such a demonstration myself. My year in Munich marked a turning point, however, and two years later, when I was living in San Francisco, political events were part of the rhythm of my life: urgent meetings, demonstrations for peace, and passing out leaflets.

But tonight, listening to the current city councilor introduce the school-board candidates, those years seem far away. I am no longer a student bent on changing foreign policy, but simply another parent voting in a ward caucus. Instead of worrying about war and peace and extremist political parties, I am concerned whether there will be enough money in the school budget for music or art. Will our town finally be able to buy a new school bus to replace one of the older, less reliable ones? The two candidates each present their reasons for running, and I listen, wondering which one will argue most effectively for stronger schools in our town, which one will discover more innovative ways to use the little money our schools have.

I LISTEN carefully, for like many other voters here, I have ties to both candidates. The nurse works with our children's pediatrician; the other candidate is a neighbor, and her husband coaches our son's soccer team. Both women have called, asking for my support. My husband and I have talked the issues over with other neighbors - a children's librarian, a school superintendent from another district - and even with our own two children.

It's a neighborhood election, then, but the stakes are not neighborhood stakes. These are serious times, and education is in serious trouble. Like most towns in northern New England, ours is struggling. The paper mills have had numerous layoffs in the past year; all over town, houses post for-sale signs. Local property taxes have been raised, but the schools have even less money than they did a year ago because of the state's budget crisis. Families are also struggling; this year 50 percent of the children in the schools qualify for subsidized meals. And we're all worried: How can we give our children the education they need and deserve?

In my early 20's, when I was living in Munich and San Francisco, I would not have imagined this scene in my future: a struggling mill town, a cold autumn night, a ward election in a bleak classroom. My 1960's self (who wasn't sure she ever even wanted children) would have found this later self a disturbingly parochial parent - a mother whose concerns had shrunk to the concrete and trivial: violin lessons for fourth-graders, a school bus, the need for another guidance counselor for troubled kids.

But sitting on the window ledge in the high school, I see a continuum in my life from Munich to my current home that feels right. It's the children in our small town, and in other towns and cities across the country, who will grow up to make decisions about complicated issues that ultimately bring war or peace. It is partly through their education that they will learn to recognize and resist the false appeal of hate groups and to perceive the world as a place where everyone belongs. To have this broader vision, they need the best education possible. In this context, it matters a great deal who is on every school board in the country.

We vote by a show of hands, and the nurse wins, 44 to 10. My husband and I offer her our congratulations and exit into the hall, where we talk with friends from other neighborhoods and wait for the results of other caucuses. There have been, as it turns out, several upsets. We discuss what all this means for our children, and hope that the potentially volatile mix of personalities on the board will make for lively and productive meetings.

As we drive home through the rainy streets, I feel surprisingly happy. The turnout was high in all seven of the town's wards. And though I disagree with my neighbor about the AIDS curriculum, I'm glad she felt strongly enough to seek election. I'm aware of how easily all of us might not have made the effort, might not have thought it mattered that we vote.

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