Last month, I cast my first ever vote for President of the United States. In January 2011, after twenty years as a permanent resident, I became a citizen of the U.S. This was not a decision I took lightly. It was not an easy thing to turn my back on the United Kingdom, where I had grown up, received a college degree, and where my family still lives.
However, influencing my decision more than perhaps any other factor was the importance of my right to vote. As a nineteen year old at the University of York in the U.K., I voted in a general election for the first time. For a few years after I moved to Colorado, I voted in British elections from afar, but there seemed something disingenuous about having a say in a place where I neither lived nor paid taxes.
Finally, after far too long, and after acing the citizenship test that twenty years of teaching fifth grade American history and geography had so graciously prepared me for (one of the questions they asked me was “Which ocean is off the west coast of the United States?”), I found myself in the suburban offices of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in Centennial, Colorado. In a meaningful and surprisingly emotional ceremony, I stood up with seventy five brand new Americans of every stripe, from thirty six different countries, and swore allegiance to this country. One of the vows I promised to myself was never to miss out on the right and the privilege to vote.
It is perhaps the most important act that we can perform as a citizen.
The role of good citizenship is something I have been proud to teach my students over the years. In the words of our newly re-elected President in his victory speech in the early hours of the morning following the election, “What makes America exceptional are the bonds that hold together the most diverse nation on earth. The belief that our destiny is shared; that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations. The freedom which so many Americans have fought for and died for come with responsibilities as well as rights. And among those are love and charity and duty and patriotism.” To that I would add showing up fully, pursuing a quality education, learning to manage conflict, and showing respect to all.
|Citizenship Day, January 26 2011|
When the elementary students at Friends’ School in Boulder took to their own polls in the school’s library on Election Day, the teachers urged them to show respect for each other and for divergent viewpoints.
In a note I received from one of the parents, “it is imperative that we show our children how many things connect us rather than the things that separate us. To show the children that respect for each other is more important than the issues that we think divide us. In a nutshell, we as a school must seek to be the change we want to see in the world.”
I couldn’t agree more. Those are among my school’s strongest values. It is part of our mission: “Our students acquire a strong academic foundation while developing creative expression, social responsibility, and respect for diversity and the individual”.
It’s what I signed up for when I arrived at Friends’ School and when I raised my right hand and took the oath of citizenship as a United States citizen.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt once said, “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.”
It’s good to be here. It’s good to be in education. It’s good to be able to choose wisely.
It’s good to have a voice.