Twenty-four years ago, long before I became an educator myself, my fifth-grade teacher told my class that we would get to vote in “a mock presidential election.” I was 11 years old and enrolled at Arrowhead Elementary School in Billings, Montana; meanwhile, Ronald Regan and Walter Mondale were vying for votes in the November election.
Although I didn’t really comprehend what a “mock election” meant, I did understand that the U.S. government wouldn’t actually count our votes, which disappointed me. Nevertheless, I was extremely excited about the prospect of voting, and I returned home eager to learn about the candidates. At the time, my father was a Republican and my mother was an Independent with a history of voting for Democrats. The discussion that ensued touched on everything from fiscal responsibility and the implications of small versus big government to the social programs and issues of the time. I solemnly mulled all this over and finally decided that I believed more in the Democratic agenda. In retrospect, this decision was surprising, not only because Montana was then a decidedly red state, but also because, at that time in my life, I revered my father when it came to questions of identity formation. Perhaps this is partly why the mock election was so transformative for me—it was probably the first time I made an important decision about my beliefs entirely on my own. I’ve voted Democratic ever since.
When I arrived at school the following day, realistic voting booths lined the halls. We each got to enter our booth, pull the curtain behind us, and cast our ballots. Today, as an adult, one of the things I love most about voting is that you go into the booth alone, with no one looking over your shoulder or telling you what to do. This was what most affected me as a fourth-grader, too: I learned that my beliefs, independent of everyone else, counted for something.
Of course, Reagan, not Mondale, won the national election. Although this was disappointing, it didn’t stymie my enthusiasm for participating in democracy; I have voted in every election since I was eighteen. The mock election was different from any educational experience I’d had before, and I’ve carried the excitement I had as a fifth-grader into the voting booth as an adult. As an adult, one is more accustomed to having a say in things; as a child, I was better able to comprehend the significance of voting as an act of true personal agency, something children rarely have an opportunity to experience. It’s one thing to learn about the government while you sit passively at a desk reading a textbook; it’s quite another to know that your individual beliefs actually have an impact on that government while you stand in a booth and cast your vote.
I believe this is the essence of education at its best. I can only hope that now I, as an educator myself, might have a similar effect on the students with whom I come into contact.