The first time I remember hearing the word “democrat” was on a field trip bus in second grade, in my beautiful home state of Washington. Josh’s parents were democrats, he told our teacher. I didn’t know what that meant, but it sounded like a yucky word to me. It had the word “rat” in it, after all. I wondered if my parents were democrats, but it seemed like one of those questions I would ask, and they’d think it was really cute and hilarious, and would just laugh at my very, very serious sentiment. So I refrained from bringing it up.
By sixth grade I knew that we weren’t democrats, thank goodness. I also started hearing words like “liberal” and “conservative” thrown around, but I was too concerned with conquering the early, wildly-complicated stages of adolescence to give it too much thought.
In eighth grade, good ol’ 2008, politics got real for me. Barack Obama wanted to let GAYS get MARRIED. TO EACH OTHER. He also wanted to allow women to kill their unborn babies. Whoa. That was enough for me. In preparation for my school’s mock election (TERRIBLE IDEA, MIDDLE SCHOOL ADMINISTRATION. I DON’T CARE IF YOU’RE TRYING TO FOSTER CITIZENSHIP AND AMERICAN VALUES. DO NOT LET FOURTEEN-YEAR-OLD’S PRETEND TO HAVE POLITICAL OPINIONS), my two friends and I crafted “NoBama” and “John McCain 2008” badges out of printer paper, colored pencils, and rolled-up bits of scotch tape during English class. And wore them.
Where, you may wonder, did we get such an idea? See, our teachers were such excellent, upstanding examples. My digital media teacher wore a pin on his collar so cleverly quoting the Tina-Fey-as-Sarah-Palin “I can see Russia from my house!” gag, while my English teacher chose a significantly-more-subtle Obama logo motif for her wearable political opinion-piece. Inappropriate for school? I think so. Did I realize that back then and climb above that influence? Absolutely not. This meant war.
I wore that NoBama badge all election day. When voting time arrived, I’m pretty sure I decided on Ralph Nader in the last minute because I was super cool and thought it would be funny. My friend voted for John McCain. That was the only McCain vote in the entire eighth grade class.
The next morning, after, you know, the actual grown-up election crushed my dreams of a gay-free, abortion-free future for America, I wore my NoBama badge out of spite. A sweet older woman para-educator who’d noticed my conservative enthusiasm over the past few days (and so charmingly told me that not to worry, she would be voting for John McCain. Seriously one of the sweetest things in hindsight), asked me if I was wearing my McCain pin that day. Nope, I replied. It said “NoBama.” So proud I was.
The grocery store had post-election republican chewing gum on sale, and I asked my mom to buy it for me. She did, and I carried it with me everywhere. I even used it in a tongue-in-cheek social studies presentation and my teacher, obviously surprised that her unruly and outspoken student owned such as thing as republican chewing gum thought it was the greatest and most hilarious thing she’d ever seen. Pretty sure we got an A on that project.
Things were obviously great. I knew where I stood. I stood up for what I believed in. I liked being different. Then high school made things a little crazy.
Freshman year went by uneventfully. For whatever reason freshmen in my school didn’t take history. My English teacher didn’t bring up politics. It wasn’t a big deal, at all.
And then sophomore year happened. To this day I shudder at the memories of my AP World History class. I learned so much, truly. It gave me a greater appreciation for the world and its varying cultures. It also sort of sent me into a deep pit of cynical bad-world-syndrome-induced depression, but you know, why shouldn’t a sixteen-year-old go through that?
I should have realized I was way out of my zone when I walked into the classroom for the first time and saw the George Bush cutout, wearing a gold plastic dollar sign necklace. Above him hung an upside-down globe. Did I mention that my teacher taught us that Bush was probably a cocaine addict during his presidency? All right.
To put it simply, I learned how terrible white men were. Colonialism destroyed the world. Guns were the worst. We would, undoubtedly, without question, be nuked sometime in the next ten years, and we’d be deserving of it. Capitalism and the slowly-creeping westernization of the world would lead us straight to whatever agnostic version of hell she chose to teach us about that day. The Holocaust was something we could have prevented if only we chose not to bully people. White supremacy was alive and well, just hiding in various pockets of America. Jesus was all right, but modern Christians, oh man. Do not even get her started on them. Hope? Meaningless.
In the past I used to justify this teaching method by saying, “well, she’s a great teacher. She really cares about her students. She just has really strong opinions.” But you know what? She wasn’t a great teacher. Great teachers teach their students how to think without teaching them what to think, and she had major issues with the last part. She tore my value system apart. At first it was easy to decide that she was just crazy and didn’t know what was up in the world, but that method didn’t work out too well as the year progressed.
See, she read things. A lot of things. Books, news, philosophy. I didn’t know any of those things as a sophomore in high school, and I knew arguing would be hopeless. My history experience was highly lacking to begin with (thanks, school system), and her class, the first to comprehensively introduce history, was all I had to go off of. By virtue of education, she had the upper hand, always. It broke me.
Of course it was more complicated than that – I really did love learning the world’s history. I became passionate about things like stem cell research, Gandhi, and apartheid. I learned more about history in those nine months than I ever had before. I could no longer pull A’s in history with republican gum, and my success in the class became directly related to my rollercoaster-like capacity for happiness. I stayed up until 3AM some nights, crafting notes and urging my brain to remember every little thing it possibly could.
When AP Test season rolled around, I knew I would fail. I was convinced I was far too stupid to succeed, because my teacher’s over-preparation technique had me thinking a 5 (the highest possible score) was simply unattainable.
After literal weeks of anxiety, I took the test. School ended about a month later, and I remember feeling so unbelievably burned out. Sleep deprivation, combined with my new “sophisticated” worldview in which conservatism inadvertently became a synonym for old and stupid, had opened a nasty chasm of snark that I’m convinced still hasn’t closed all the way.
The college board envelope showed up a few weeks later, and I got a 5.
What did I learn from this experience? I don’t know. It’s still too fresh, four years later.
I guess it’s the first time my beliefs were fundamentally challenged, which in turn caused me to label myself more fiercely than I ever had before. I had to be a fifteen-year-old, anti-feminist conservative republican, because that was the only option presented to me, alongside this crazy neo-liberalism that had me scared to death that my predecessors caused any and all turmoil to our current state of existence. That was a lot of baggage.
For the rest of high school, I felt wildly conservative. Whenever I satirized liberalism in opinion essays, my teachers lauded me for forward-thinking as I internally guffawed at their blindness to what I was actually saying. I didn’t actually think disgustingly sexist, racist, vulgar rap lyrics expressed important issues facing black America, but my media analysis teacher didn’t know that. She thanked me for sharing my interesting and completely valid viewpoint. Gross.
Graduation happened, finally, and I could leave all those crazy democrats in my past where they belonged.
College in Utah was a very real Godsend. I no longer felt wrong for being religious, or having any hope at all in the world and its conservative-leaning inhabitants. My religion teacher taught me that American politics and religion did not necessarily connect as strongly as we may have thought growing up. My literary analysis teacher taught me that “liberal,” “feminism,” and “marxism” were not bad words, and that those concepts could open up a lot of interesting discussions when applied to literature. My biology professor taught me that evolution was a good, important, true thing to study. All this, from what many commentators consider one of the most conservative learning institutions in the country. It was perfect for me.
And then I realized that all those professors who I learned so much about and loved so dearly? Flaming Utah liberals, the lot of them.
Now I can’t tolerate conservatives blogging about why they think feminism is destroying the world, or how welfare is an evil institution that we should abolish immediately, or how guns literally equal freedom, or Muslims are out to get us and one day take over America with their rampant breeding. I see Facebook cover photos of revolvers sitting atop bibles, and I feel sick to my stomach, and sometimes I click on links about the conservative men’s right movement just to have a good laugh.
And then I stumble on crazy, feisty, legitimately mean and nasty liberals all over the place. And conservatives who think progressives want to eat their impressionable young children for breakfast. Liberals who want to teach sex ed in kindergarten, and conservatives who want to avoid the subject altogether until at least the age of 35.
What am I supposed to do with this? Can anyone really expect me to, after this weirdly-bilateral experience, actually align with a party? I know too many crazy, terribly-confused people on both sides (not to mention even more wonderful, respectable people on both sides) that I don’t even know who to listen to anymore. I try and read varying opinions, but op-eds so often smack with juvenile click-bate rhetoric that only serve to justify opinions their readers already have.
My Utah friends think I’m an outspoken liberal. My Washington friends think I’m an outspoken conservative. Neither of them are wrong. Does that seem weird to anyone else?
I like to think that what matters more than anything is truth. Beyond the bad blood, the contention, the sickening arguments between grown adults that never seem to end, is the capacity for actual truth, love, and compassion, and as a democracy we have the power to demonstrate what we think those things entail with a vote.
We shouldn’t choose a side because everyone else is, or isn’t. We should have the gumption to quit the petty Facebook arguments and put our opinions to good work, volunteering, sharing the message, and politely and respectfully sharing our views without demonizing opposing forces.
I’ve learned a lot about political leanings in my short time of experience with the subject, and I’m grateful I’ve had the chance to deal with such wildly varying opinions not only from influential teachers, but in close friends as well. Odds are, if you can back up your opinion with good reasons that aren’t “but Obama wants to let gay people GET MARRIED. TO EACH OTHER,” I will probably want to be your friend, because I like people who think about their opinions in enlightened, interesting ways that don’t rely on putting down the opposition. It’s awfully hard to come by sometimes.
I’ve learned over time that I have no clue how to fix the world’s problems, but does it count for anything at all that I’m willing to admit that? Is there something intriguing about the fact that the more I learned, the more I realized how very little I actually know? Maybe that’s what lifelong progression is all about: learning, repeatedly, how much we’ve got left to learn about the world, about ourselves, and about this freaking nightmare called American politics.