Breaking the Ice: Laughter and Connection

The twenty something man, svelte and sinewy, stands in his underwear and turns to the camera to strike a few “macho” poses before leaping onto an ice-covered pond. The triumph of his plunge through the ice–and his fearless recovery as he emerges from the bone-numbing bath–will be used in his heavy metal band’s promotional video. His friends focus the camera and wait on tenterhooks as he readies himself. He leaps!

And then…he fails to break the ice. He slides across the ice in his skivvies. Once it’s clear that he’s not hurt, the man and his mates cannot control themselves. The video camera swings wildly as the cameraman tries to catch his breath between spasms of laughter. The underwear-clad macho man scoots back across the ice–like a preschooler wriggling on a rug–between his own fits of guffaws.

I discovered this fabulous clip while researching neuroscientist Dr. Sophie Scott’s work on laughter. Scott is a senior fellow at University College London and studies the neuroscience of speech and vocal behavior. In her TED Talk on why we laugh, referencing the work of Dr. Robert Provine of the University of Maryland, she explains that “you are 30 times more likely to laugh if you are with somebody else than if you’re on your own.”

We don’t laugh the most when we watch comedy routines or hear jokes; we laugh the most and the hardest when communicating with our friends and family. Scott asserts, “You are laughing to show people that you understand them, that you agree with them, that you’re part of the same group as them. You’re laughing to show that you like them…You’re doing all that at the same time as talking to them, and the laughter is doing a lot of that emotional work for you.” And it is enormously “behaviorally contagious.” We “catch” laughter from others more often if we know them.

Have you ever watched clips of Britain’s House of Commons? Some of the best ones are of sessions when the Prime Minister must come and face the grilling. Margaret Thatcher, David Cameron, and Gordon Brown alike–we see politicians fiercely disagreeing–hurling some stinging zingers–but the hilarity and irreverence allows them to struggle with really big issues without either side disengaging from the debate. This engagement is sorely lacking within our own Congress. And it shows in the abysmal results.

Senator Dustin Degree (Republican from Franklin County) and I once duked it out on the floor of the Senate when it was a time to debate Same Day Voter Registration. I passionately supported the initiative, he was adamantly opposed. We both came prepared with facts, figures, details and broad context. He is a formidable opponent on any issue. He prepares carefully and understands the strategic maneuvers possible within the arcane Mason’s Rules. My argument won the day, though perhaps it was not my floor debate but the numbers: Democrats greatly outnumber Republicans in the Senate.

But at a break in the action, we could still find common cause through humor. We came together and rapped the words of the 1979 classic tune, “Rapper’s Delight” by The Sugarhill Gang.

We in the Senate tend towards “wonky” and impatient when faced with a legislative crockpot full of angst stew. We must remember that often laughter bridges the gap between people not argument. We face serious issues with real consequences for the lives of Vermonters; all votes and floor debates need to be weighed and considered most carefully. But when we lose our sense of humor, we forfeit an essential tool for effective collaboration.

In the midst of mourning

A dear friend’s dad passed away in December. I drove up to northern Vermont a few days before Christmas to attend the wake. I anticipated feeling somewhat awkward, as I always feel a bit odd in the presence of a corpse–albeit one dressed up and patted with makeup to appear dapper. But I did not anticipate the gift this ancient ritual offered.

When I first arrived, my friend gestured to the open casket and said, “That’s not the dad I knew. He didn’t look like that.” She encouraged me to go into the side parlor to see the slideshow of her dad that she and her siblings had put together. An avid hunter and fisherman, her father was seen in photo after photo posing with his catch or his bounty: trout, elk, deer, moose and even some more exotic fare like swordfish. I saw weathered boats, slouching hunting camps and dented cars and trucks–all whose sole purpose seemed to be allowing this man to commune with nature and wrestle sustenance from it.

The roses on the blonde wooden coffin were stunning, a crimson so bold and lush that they paired perfectly with the guttural French that burst in fits and starts from the gathered mourners: “Ah, oui! Tres bien!” This earthy French Canadian lilt belongs to hardscrabble farmers of Northern Vermont. It’s not the smooth tone of the cosmopolitan Parisians. The room pulsed with cackles and wisecracks. I overheard my friend commenting on her dad’s accident, “Well, he sure went out with a bang! That was fitting.”

I sat quietly and watched the customs and protocol. The children of the deceased, all dressed in black, lined up in front of their father’s coffin to welcome the guests. My friend looked intently as each mourner approached, and she’d reach back years, sometimes decades, to find a memory to which she could match the face before her. Once identified, she would fling her arms wide in greeting and then, post-hug, she’d offer the mourner to her sister, all the while explaining context and history.

They streamed in all evening–some in suits, some in sweats. A baby slept through all the commotion, another one practiced toddling on her unsure 9-month-old legs–her young father clearly grateful for the distraction. She gave him license to wander away from the casket and the conversations.

Because we are true friends and openly share both life’s wondrous quality and its bile, I know so much about her experience in this family. And because we are all flawed, and we all let loved ones down and disappoint and enrage, I accept there is always that which is not said–memories that will not be shared and conversations not swapped–not out of veneration for the dead, but out of deference for the living. Those left behind must fashion an understanding and acceptance of shortcomings; the controversies and conflicts will remain, to be sure, but the customs and ritual allow us to hold it all with an imperfect respect and honesty.

Yes, there were moments of uncertainty as to what to do or say, but I emerged from the wake with a much more complete sense of my friend, the family in which she grew up, and the culture that shapes and frames her life.

As I sat and watched the family, I caught a moment of stunning clarity: the three sisters all folded their arms and leaned casually in the same way–with hips slightly popped and chins cocked in an air of curiosity and irreverence. It was the ethereal and mystical quality of families captured in the midst of mourning.

Incident at Heart Mountain

There’s a stretch of highway in the Bighorn Basin of Wyoming that passes by the site of a World War II era Japanese internment camp. The Heart Mountain Relocation Center–situated between the towns of Cody and Powell–held over 13,000 Japanese American citizens and Japanese immigrants between 1942-1945 and became the fourth biggest “town” in Wyoming.

From the grounds of the former camp, Heart Mountain looms on the horizon. When I lived in Powell and visited the site, I always thought of the cruel irony that the hopeful sounding “Heart Mountain” marked a heartless, dismal chapter in American history. Indescribably hot and dry in the summer and bitingly cold in the winter, it must have felt like a foreign country to those shipped from the Pomona, Santa Anita, and Portland assembly centers on the West Coast. But a remarkable friendship formed there in that harsh, windswept landscape.

Two preteen boys forged a bond that endures today: Norman Mineta–former U.S. House member and United States Transportation Secretary, who was interned at the camp–and Alan Simpson–former U.S. Senator from Wyoming who grew up in the nearby town of Cody–met through Boy Scouting activities arranged between locals and those in the detention center. Simpson saw “No Japs Allowed” signs in his hometown as he traveled to the detention center and passed by guard towers and barbed wire fences to attend a Scout Jamboree. Even in the midst of public bigotry and fear, there are always those courageous and clear eyed ones who see beyond the hurtful rhetoric. Simpson’s parents must have been cut from this cloth.

When a bill was introduced in 1988 to offer an apology and reparations to those Japanese Americans who had been locked up, both Mineta and Simpson were sponsors: a fitting testament to justice but also to their long friendship. The New York Times recently pointed out that some of the legislators who opposed that bill are still in office: Mitch McConnell and John McCain. Presidential candidate John Kasich also voted against it. Despite his own party’s opposition, President Reagan did sign it into law. And there are a few other surprises among the list of supporters of the bill–two of my least favorite politicians: Newt Gingrich and Dick Cheney. (It is good and healthy for me to stretch my ideas about the measure of these men.)

Norman Mineta and Alan Simpson are often asked to tell the story of their friendship. It is at once both singular and unremarkable. Children–who live apart from the pressures of hyperbolic politics–find common cause wherever they can: Legos, miniature horse collections, soccer…or a Boy Scout Jamboree held at an internment camp. Where you come from is not nearly as compelling as where you’re going.

I imagine Mineta and Simpson will be asked more and more to recount their story, especially now that Donald Trump and other politicians have said, without irony or self-consciousness, that FDR had a great idea when he rounded up peaceful, innocent people en masse. Trump’s lackeys have forgotten–or never knew–that far from being a moment of valor, strength and leadership, the Japanese Internment program is a stark example of what happens when we give in to weakness and unbridled fear.

“We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.”–Plato

Be the shamash

In this week of Hanukkah, a friend shared with me the words of Rabbi David Wolpe: “The shamash is the candle that lights the others. Be a shamash.” I was grateful for the reminder; Donald Trump’s fear-based rhetoric–and the adoring crowds that eagerly consume his dangerous messages–had cast a pall over my week. Another friend said to me yesterday, “I am not Jewish, but I love Hanukkah and all the holidays with light; I will take the light anywhere I can get it!” That is my goal this season: To find the light anywhere and everywhere I can and then to offer it to others for sustenance and solace. An important part of this process is to shine a light on darkness.

Donald Trump’s candidacy was a joke at first. Months ago, a friend shared a picture of the egomaniacal tycoon that likened his hair to the burst of corn silk at the end of a cob. I laughed and shared it with others. I am no longer chuckling. Nor am I sharing funny pictures of him. It is time to shine light on the darkness of his messages and acknowledge just how dangerous they are–not just to individuals but to a nation that cannot wear the mantle of “freedom loving” when we seek to limit freedom.

I have read pieces in the Huffington Post, Vanity Fair, Time, and Psychology Today which all explore whether or not the Republican frontrunner is a clinical narcissist. Jeffrey Kluger, author of the 2014 book “The Narcissist Next Door”, points out that Trump demonstrates many of the classic outward signs of narcissism: strutting, blustering, arm-waving, intolerance of criticism, and self-aggrandizing claims. But, Kluger asserts, a curious aspect of his popularity is that Trump is not talented at the emergent phase of an enterprise–something that many narcissists master. “There’s a charm, a charisma, and articulate energy that draws people in,” he explains.

Yet Trump has not demonstrated these qualities at all on the campaign trail–electing instead to mock a reporter with a disability and condone the “roughing up” of an African American man at one of his rallies. There hasn’t been a “honeymoon” phase that a voter can point to in an effort to explain her lapse of reason in supporting the larger-than-life New York wheeler and dealer. He has been boorish, overbearing and bullying from the beginning. What does this say about his supporters?

It’s impossible to look at his most recent proposal to block all Muslims from entering the U.S. without feeling like we’re laying the groundwork for collective scapegoating. Trump’s rhetoric hinges on the creation of “the other”: African Americans, immigrants, women and Muslims. He posits that answers are simple, fear should drive and shape policy, and anyone who disagrees is stupid and possibly dangerous. He delights in belittling and dismissing, and his supporters love him for it.

I know Trump’s antics–splashed bombastically across the media landscape–are hard to ignore and harder still to combat. Perhaps you feel at a loss to explain to a relative or neighbor just how awful you think his message is. But smaller scale statements beginning with “I,” make a difference. “I value my Muslim neighbors.” Let’s challenge ourselves in this time of darkness to shine light on our own behaviors that seek to divide. Resist the urge to “group” people; let go of petty disagreements; try listening deeply instead of trying to win an argument. We know what has happened in Germany, Cambodia, Rwanda and in so many other places where fear and distrust grew voracious and grisly. Be the shamash.

A Vermonter in Doha

Each day a friend posts captivating and poignant photos online from her home in Doha, Qatar. She documents both her mundane and wondrous experiences there, and those of us on the other side of the globe get a feast for our eyes and spirits. School for International Training graduates, she and her spouse have lived and worked for NGOs in far flung reaches of the planet for over a decade. But this is the first time she has fully embraced her skill and grace with photography and put her pictures on social media for daily consumption and reflection. It is one of my favorite parts of my day: visiting Doha with a touch of a button.

Another friend is in Abu Dhabi with her sons this week; they are forgoing tangible presents in exchange for experiences this holiday season. She works for a non-partisan think tank in D.C., although I met her at the Women’s Campaign School at Yale. Through her snapshots and online posts, I have visited the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and seen her sons’ delight as they watched the lights dance in the mosque’s reflecting pool. We have shared many parenting experiences together through our posts and messages on Facebook over the years. She, an African American mom, who lives in our nation’s bustling capital, and I, a caucasian mom in one of the nation’s whitest and most rural states, feel grateful for the window we have into each other’s lives.

At 47, I am not a millennial nor am I a technology native. When I started college, I was still composing my term papers on an IBM Selectric II typewriter–which I just learned is listed as “vintage” on ebay. Thanks for that, ebay. I also was decidedly not an “early adopter” of social media. My older sister and I would often joke about how there were a lot of folks–past loves, for example–that we were happy to keep at a distance; we didn’t need to make it any easier for them to track us down. “If I wanted to be in touch with them,” she laughed, “they’d already have my contact information!”

But I relented when I started to see its usefulness in shrinking the world for me. When the planet becomes smaller, less scary and more accessible–both emotionally and psychologically–we can become more compassionate and understanding citizens of the world.

When many Republican governors–and a few Democrats, too–called for shutting Syrian refugees out of our immigration process, despite that the vetting process for those fleeing war in Syria currently takes about two years, I took to social media for solace, context and support. And then Donald Trump said he’d support a database to track all Muslims; Ben Carson likened Syrian refugees to rabid dogs. And Jeb Bush suggested we only admit Christians from Syria. I posted about my own family’s immigration story, and encouraged others to do the same. Soon I had a long string of American immigration and refugee stories posted from friends and acquaintances. It is a simple–but direct–action to change the narrative about what it means to be an American.

There is a photo from Doha that my buddy posted last week that continues to resonate with me. It is a cityscape in relief at sunset; the buildings are black against an exquisite cadmium-colored sky. The sun looks weary, heavy from the day. As I write, from my home on South Main in Brattleboro, I watch the sun, bright with promise, tug itself above Wantastiquet Mountain, the landscape in dark relief. It is the same sun.

The women leaders of Cameroon

The email inquiry came out of the blue with a request I couldn’t turn down. Would I be willing to meet with a group of female politicians from Cameroon? The place and time were not convenient, but I still jumped at the chance. These women leaders traveled to Vermont as part of a U.S. State Department trip that brought them to several U.S. states. As we sat around a conference table in Burlington, along with two talented French language translators, I delighted in the exchange of hearts and minds, and I marveled at the idea that they came to learn from us when the work they are doing is simply amazing.

Cameroon is a coastal central African nation on the western side of the continent. Home to 230 languages–although French and English are its official languages–it sits in the Bight of Biafra and is bordered by Nigeria, Chad, Central African Republic, Gabon and tiny Equatorial Guinea. When I taught social studies, I once wrote a song about the African continent to help students remember that it is, in fact, the world’s second most populous continent–and not a country, despite erroneous ad copy and hackneyed sitcom dialogue. There’s a lot we don’t understand about the struggles–and strengths–of the 54 African nations.

My visit with the Cameroonian legislators happened in the week preceding the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris and Beirut. If the timing had been different, we perhaps would have discussed Boko Haram and not other issues. The sociopathic terrorist group calling itself the Islamic State has gotten a lot of press this year, but Boko Haram has killed more people. As I sit down to write this, Boko Haram has been blamed for more suicide bombings in markets in Nigeria and Cameroon last week. According to reports, one of the bombers was an 11 year old girl. There is no limit to Boko Haram’s depravity.

This jihadist group has terrorized Nigerians and the citizens of neighboring nations since 2002, as it tries to establish a state based on sharia law. Its zealots killed 6,600 human beings last year alone. Now they are making more incursions into Cameroon, Chad and Niger, targeting young people to recruit for its terrorist activities. Boko Haram kidnapped hundreds of girls from a school in Chibok in April of 2014, which drew international condemnation. Some of the schoolgirls managed to escape, but it is believed that most have been sold into slavery, married off to Boko Haram fighters or killed.

It is truly perilous to be an educated female in areas in which Boko Haram operates. When my colleagues in Cameroon show up for their work in the National Assembly they are literally risking their necks.

Our problems in Vermont are not insignificant, and we will face another daunting budget gap when we return to Montpelier in January. Poverty, hunger, rising healthcare costs, workforce challenges, the scourge of opiate addiction, unaffordable housing–these, and many other pressing issues, will all demand our attention. As legislators, we will do our best to find solutions that will make meaningful improvements in people’s lives. We will work long, long hours and we will sometimes–encouraged by constituents–veer into grandstanding in attempts to get the attention of others who will help us further our agendas. But I will not look at Vermont politics the same way now that I have met with these remarkable Cameroonian women.

As we shared our experiences of being women involved in politics, and I looked deeply at the faces before me, I kept thinking, “This is what courage looks like.”

“Be a man!” and other lasting impressions

There’s a new patch of sidewalk along my morning run that has recently caught my attention. Oak leaves have stained the cement with tannin. Although undeniably recognizable as the markings of oak leaves, the edges are smudged, not crisp or clean. They’ll be there a long time; some impressions seem to stay with us for an eternity.

I started graduate school deeply concerned about issues of equity and fairness in education. I had experienced sexism as a high school student and wanted to ensure that young girls’ voices were heard. Infuriatingly, sexism against women and girls still exists; we must continue to be adamant and vocal in our opposition. We all lose when sexism shapes the conversation and drives stifling dynamics in classrooms across this country.

Thankfully, girls have made some big strides, and our concerted efforts at equity in the classroom have paid off. Many more girls are applying to college and graduate schools, and we have made significant inroads into many professional fields that have long been dominated by men. But our boys are not faring so well.

From flagging achievement on benchmarks and tests, to high rates of expulsion and discipline, to dropping rates of college applications, many parents of boys are worried that their sons are not thriving. I meet these parents all the time. As a teacher, I sat on school Action Planning Teams years ago to try to tackle the gender and poverty achievement gap; I am troubled that we have not made much headway.

This thorny problem brought me to the Governor’s Institute Conference at Middlebury College last week to wrestle with the question of how gender issues play out in education. Students, educators, administrators and citizens examined what we are getting right in how we educate our girls and boys and what we are getting wrong.

I invited a male friend along to the conference, as he is keenly interested in issues of gender and equity and how bias limits choices for both girls and boys. He is a thoughtful, action-oriented person eager to make a difference. We each posted pictures and blurbs about the conference on social media. My friends weighed in positively on my post; he told me he was teased by male acquaintances about attending the conference at all.

He wrote, “It’s the ‘be a man’ training in action. I get it. I have heard it all my life.” Reflecting upon it later, he bemoaned this frustrating dynamic and how limiting it was. He said, “As you know, the prisoners and the jailers are both…in prison.”

Both men and women sometimes adopt and reinforce these limiting gender stereotypes and expectations of themselves and each other. He mentioned a woman we both know who seems to have bought into the “Men Don’t Cry” message; it is very discouraging and disheartening to watch this bias play out.

Obviously, schools exist within the larger societal context. The seemingly intractable problems in education are our own personal struggles writ large. I have come to believe that any effort at solutions must start from an examination of our deeply held beliefs–sometimes dangerous and often erroneous–about the nature of girls and boys.

This week I am holding my friend’s words close to my heart and using them to find a way forward. He wrote, “How much richer, more affirming, more loving might life be if we stepped out of these roles that tell us to be something smaller than our full selves? It’s sad that it’s so ordinary and so accepted.” Yes.

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The dance we do

After years of wondering, dreaming and longing, I recently started to take vocal jazz lessons. I love to sing and do all the time–much to my kids’ consternation–but I’d not taken formal voice lessons in over two decades. Why now? Hard to say. All the obstacles were still there–money, time, logistics, and underlying insecurity. I guess, simply put, I was ready. I was ready to finally forgive VPR host George Thomas for ending his decade-long run on his evening jazz show. I was ready to pardon my higher power for giving Dianne Reeves the voice, and Ella Fitzgerald the phrasing talents clearly intended for me. I was ready to do the work to make my own jazz.

After five weeks of lessons, I am still consciously incompetent. I need to think about so many things at once: my body position, my breathing, my mouth, my phrasing–and of course, my tone and pitch! I am working hard to breathe from the “bottom up” as I try to fill my diaphragm, push my resonance into the spot between my eyes, and allow the tone to rise up the back of my head into the crown. As I strive to create new pathways of learning and understanding, I wait impatiently for that time when it all comes together, and I don’t exhaust myself with incessant thoughts about what I am getting wrong.

In singing, as with so many other creative and athletic endeavors, practice does enable you to tap into “muscle memory”; you eventually glide into being unconsciously competent. Not so when it comes to our efforts at conquering our own biases. We wrestle with judgments and bias constantly. It is how we order our complex worlds, although certainly bias sometimes veers from harmless sorting to dangerous prejudice. When we are honest with ourselves, we must acknowledge that we will dance with our bias our whole lives; it is never fully conquered. We keep some of our prejudgments in check only to find that we have bias in other areas.

It is an unfortunate aspect of the human experience; we miss the mark sometimes, and by doing so we miss out on some wonderful connections. Our biases can and do prevent us from seeing beyond our rough initial sorting of people. And the thing is, we make mistakes in our immediate judgments and assessments all the time.

Yassmin Abdel-Magied stresses this in her memorable TED talk. She stands before us in a headscarf and traditional dress that signals to the audience that she is a practicing Muslim. She invites us to size up our reactions and assumptions about her identity and her story. Then she strips off the outer layer of clothing to reveal her work clothes. Abdel-Magied is a mechanical engineer who works on oil and gas rigs off the coast of Australia. In her thought provoking and disarming talk, this young woman gives us permission to be flawed, to be human. We all have bias. No exceptions. So, how do we prevent snap judgments from becoming oppressive boxes?

Abdel-Magied acknowledges that we each seek out folks who are similar to us. There is often undeniable comfort in being with “our people”. But she implores us to sometimes resist that urge and spend time connecting with others who are different. And then, she says, take the next crucial step: actively mentor those who are culturally, racially or socioeconomically different from us. Embrace the fun and improvisation that arises from difference.

We will feel consciously incompetent at first as we learn to dance more effectively with our inherent biases. But, as jazz great John Coltrane said, “You can play a shoestring if you’re sincere.”

Teachable moments

During my first session in the Senate, I asked a colleague for advice about constituent services. I love my work in the Vermont Senate, and I truly enjoy meeting with constituents to hear their concerns and help them find solutions to their problems. But I’d heard some horror stories about constituents screaming on the phone or sending rude emails, and I wanted his take on how to approach these situations. He said, “Remember, each email, phone call or conversation is an opportunity to educate. You were a teacher, right? Look at each of these interactions as an invitation to both learn and inform.” I certainly used his advice throughout the session when it came to discussing the particulars of a bill. But I did not anticipate the extent to which I would need to educate voters about the structure of American democracy or the role of state government.

Twenty years ago, an engaged citizen active on a particular issue, might receive a phone call or letter from a particular advocacy group urging her to contact her representatives about a particular bill or issue. Now activists receive numerous email alerts from organizations exhorting them to email their elected representatives. They provide the email text and the addresses. A voter simply needs to point and click. Although at first glance it appears to be a massive democratization of the political process, it feels quite different from the receiving end.

In the last week and a half, my inbox has been flooded with emails regarding federal legislation that I cannot act on in my role as state senator. I have been entreated to stop arctic drilling, tighten up federal gun laws, and to pass HR 1599–a federal bill regarding GMO labelling. The emails are often identical and have clearly been generated by an advocacy website. But they do contain the name and physical addresses of voters so that I can ascertain quickly if they do in fact live in my district.

Most troubling are those emails that contain a combination of ignorance and self-righteousness. It is hard to be taken to task about federal legislation I had no hand in crafting and on which I will never vote.

But how to respond? Do I answer each email and explain to my constituents that I do not actually serve on the federal level? I always try to get back to constituents about specific problems and concerns. Yet it is impossible to respond to each robo email, and I confess I do sometimes get aggravated about the situation. Each minute spent responding to dozens of misinformed emails is precious time I could use assisting folks on state matters that are dear to me.

As a citizen legislature, Vermont representatives and senators are only paid during the January-May session or on days between sessions when we are reimbursed per diem for special committees or projects. Most of our work from mid May through December is unpaid. We also have no staff to assist with constituent services.

But the teacher in me has a difficult time walking away from a teachable moment. I did write back to a voter this week about her misunderstanding about the difference between federal and state legislation. She responded soon after. “Thank you very much for getting back to me. I appreciate you taking time out of your busy schedule to better inform me.” Her brief email powered me for hours.

It helped me remember that voters understand that their email is one of thousands I receive, and the strident tone may simply be an attempt to be heard. We must engage whenever we can and not become jaded or let our frustration (or feelings of powerlessness) deter us from the teachable moment.

Meaning well but missing the mark

I still remember some of the campaign slogans from when I ran for student body president in middle school. There was “You need Anita!” and “Take a chance on Glantz!” One of mine included rhyming Balint with “talent”. I don’t recall any of our platforms or the pressing issues of the day. Even at 13 years old were critical of student elections as essentially popularity contests. But school elections were still important to us nonetheless. Whether it was about the snacks available in the lunchroom or the sports equipment offered at recess, we held that democratic desire to be part of the conversation. And we trusted that the adults would honor the outcome of the election.

But an interesting thing happened in a San Francisco middle school election earlier this month. It bubbled up at the intersection of diversity, fairness and democracy. The principal of Everett Middle School withheld the school’s election results because she felt that the slate of winning candidates was not diverse enough. Principal Lena Van Haren, herself caucasian, heads a school with a student body that is 80% students of color. Van Haren balked at the idea of her majority non-white student body being represented primarily by whites and Asian students. She would not release the tallies from the election for days afterwards.

This did not sit well with parents or students. And family members of the adolescent candidates decried that it was the exact wrong message to send to students about the electoral process. As a former social studies and civics teachers, I was thrilled to read the quotes from parents and students that spoke of elections in almost sacred terms. Students–indeed, all citizens–must have confidence that their votes matter and are accurately counted. Many parents pointed out that meaningful discussions about diversity and representative democracy should have happened in the lead up to the election and in the days after the victors were announced. But there should be no place for second guessing the wisdom of the voters–even ones who still earn an allowance.

In the end, the principal did release the vote count, but she said the school might increase the number of positions so that more students of color will serve in student government. It’s not clear how this might be achieved. Holding another election involving only candidates who identify as students of color? Will some students be appointed by teachers to serve instead of being elected by their peers? Neither solution sits well with me. Certainly, the staff must continue to educate about racism, diversity and fairness, as well as the process of running for office. And all interested students can be mentored before the election. But all who serve must have the support of the voting members of the student body.

We are an increasingly racially diverse citizenry in America. I snapped a picture at my kids’ All School Sing assembly the other day here in Brattleboro, and I was reminded that we are a great deal more diverse in our school than in many other corners of Vermont. We need to be both aware of these demographic shifts and be prepared to perhaps do some things differently as our school population changes. At a recent PTO meeting we discussed our school’s enrichment offerings and whether they meet the needs of our racially and culturally diverse student body. I am encouraged by conversations like this one. It signals a willingness by parents to acknowledge and embrace change without fear.

Our kids, it seems, have thankfully already done this.