With fewer than a dozen days left until Election Day, I’m having a hard time looking at the news. The blurzy noise of the past few months has become unbearable: polls, rigged elections, pantsuits, emails, orange, yelling, balloons. I’m still processing some of the answers I gave my ten-year old when she blurted out at dinner last week, “What’s sexual assault? And what’s rape?”
I’m sure my household isn’t unique: In just six months we’ve gone from discussing what it will mean for her generation to come of age knowing that it’s not only white men who run for President to talking about the differences between sexual assault and rape.
Since this summer, she’s been obsessed with the election. Always a news hound – a few years ago, she was asking questions about “Mitt Rommanee” – she consistently pops on NPR as we’re driving to school and asks me about the latest poll results.
(Lately, I’m the one flipping the radio to pop music. I don’t want to start my day with news. I just want to listen to “What Does the Fox Say?” on repeat.)
It’s not just her. So many kids want to talk about the election.
On a trip this summer, my daughter befriended another ten-year old while the two were scoping out the hotel pool. The girls are the same age and share the same first name. Naturally, they declared themselves soulmates and became inseparable. Initially strangers, our two families merged within hours and we spent the next few days hanging out together.
The granddaughter of immigrants from Mexico, the girl eyed me over breakfast one morning. “You’re not going to vote for Trump, are you?” she asked. “Do you know what he will do to people who look like me?”
Later that month, I was surrounded by kids at lunch. After some of the usual talk – swimming, Pokémon, movie characters I couldn’t identify, some experimental cussing – an eight-year old boy brought up the election. With corn from the cob stuck in his teeth and butter smeared on his face, he said to me, “I hate that guy Trump. Whadda think’s wrong with him?” His sister added her thoughts, and the three other kids agreed. More experimental cussing occurred.
When I mentioned the lively political conversation at the kids’ table, one mom was embarrassed. “I don’t know why they’re talking about it,” she said. “We don’t even watch the news.”
People say kids are aligned politically with their parents. Sure. Makes sense.
But I’ve also been wondering if some of their aversion to Trump is related to how children respond to facial cues. As a kid, I did not want to be around anyone who was glaring and yelling. I was also highly attuned to any potential for crisis.
I wonder how many kids are feeling that today.
The principal at my daughter’s elementary school has spoken (and emailed) about the need for civility this fall. As students learn about the electoral process and hold a mock election, he has reiterated, to students and parents alike, that the process and all related discussions will be respectful. In other words: His elementary school will not mirror what’s happening throughout the country right now.
This morning, I dropped my daughter off at school. Hugged her goodbye, said hello to her teacher. On my way down the fifth grade hallway, I bent to read a white poster covered in kids’ handwriting.
At the top it says, “If you could ask the Presidential candidates one question, what would it be?”
There are a few questions like “Will you change the age you have to be allowed to drive at?” and “Would you change any states names?” and some partisan questions, too: “Mr. Trump, are you going to announce your tax returns?” and “Why won’t you release your emails?”
Many are better questions than those asked during the three debates.
Of the 30 questions scrawled onto the poster, four have to do with women’s rights, three with global warming, and one each related to “lesbian and gay rights” and “women’s right to choose.” The ten- and eleven-year old students also ask about drug overdose deaths, the unfair treatment of African-Americans by police, and helping other countries in need.
One of my favorites is “Why would you think to give to the rich and not to the poor?”
Seeing me reading, one teacher comes over and points at a question in the corner: “Mr. Trump, you say ‘Make American Great again.’ Does that mean America is not great right now??”
Their questions make me realize how wrong it is to wait out the last dregs of election season and hope things simmer down on November 9. The stream of news from across the country – from Oregon to North Dakota and beyond – is a constant reminder that America is in a state of crisis. Last night I passed by the sign outside a motel on a bleak stretch of Central Avenue in Albuquerque—and growled at its words, “Deep and Unspoken Hopes.” You can slap any words atop a scene to influence someone to see things differently from how they really are.
But when I walked out of school this morning, I sluffed off the despair that had piggybacked onto the uneasiness I’ve been wearing the last few weeks.
The questions those fifth graders penned onto the poster were for the presidential candidates. But many of them might as well be for you and me, for every adult in the United States.
We’re leaving them troublesome legacies – a warming planet, anyone? – and setting terrible examples. And they know that.
But those questions also reassured me. If we do things right for a while, better leaders are on their way.
Laura Paskus is a reporter and radio producer who lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Photo by author