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This is why I always vote

Voting is a privilege. Thousands have died to ensure we have the right to participate in this process. Hundreds of thousands of people live in countries where they never have a chance to express themselves and determine their own future. I always vote.

Many years ago when I was in high school, some kids ran a campaign for a phony homecoming queen candidate. One of the guys in the senior class had his picture taken in a blond wig and a Jackie Kennedy pillbox hat with a veil — dubbed himself “Joan Collins.” All the candidates had 8x10 black and white photos on a bulletin board in the central hall of our high school. Word got around that “Joan Collins” didn’t really exist, that her candidacy was a hoax. Most of us thought it was a great joke.

Posters started appearing in the halls urging students to vote for her. I attended a good-sized high school with three to four hundred students in each class. Homecoming candidates were nominated not only from classes, but also from organizations and clubs. Initially there were many candidates. In the primary election “Joan Collins” won handily, making the list of finalists. We were having great fun. The administration hadn’t caught on yet and we thought we were really getting away with something. (Yeah, we were simple folk back then.)

Of course, shortly before homecoming either someone squealed or the administration just figured it out. Good grief. They were REALLY mad, the real candidates were miffed, and the rest of us thought, “Huh? What’s the big deal?”

I don’t remember now how the whole thing actually ended. I don’t recall what the administration did, so it couldn’t have been much.

However, here is what I DO remember. I was a sophomore and the cat was out of the bag. I had nothing to do with it, although I did initially vote for “Joan” and I had enjoyed the hoax. Then I went into sophomore English. Our teacher, Mrs. Nienstedt was a tiny woman, gray-haired, and probably in her 50s, without much of a sense of humor. She was a good teacher, but she had a German accent and was often hard to understand. She always was fair, proper, and we thought, cold.

She always wore a suit … skirt, long-sleeved blouse, and jacket. Everyday. On this particular day her jacket was on the back of her chair and the blouse was short-sleeved. She stood in front of the classroom and was silent. The bell rang. We messed around and laughed and joked and slowly quieted as she stared at us. She never said a word. Then she walked up and down the aisles between our desks with her left arm extended in front of us and we all saw the blue ink of a number tattooed into her flesh. I swear the hair went up on the back on my neck.

I know there are many things I have forgotten from my youth, but I can still smell the autumn leaves burning that day in the neighborhood, the classroom windows open for one of the last times before a northern Illinois winter. I remember the stillness in the room. I recall the dress I had on, the suit she was wearing, and how goofy we had all been moments before. I don’t remember more than a half dozen of my classmates’ names, but I can still see that tattoo.

And, I remember that I badly wanted to be somewhere else … to be someone else, because I knew what she was going to say.

And, she told us about being a German Jew before World War II and losing everything, including her family. She spoke about voting and what happens when suddenly you can’t; when you no longer have a say in anything that governs your life. She told us what happens when they come for you and your family in the night and within days you are the only person left anywhere who knows who you are. And, she told us about never ever being cavalier about our basic privileges, about our right to cast a ballot, and about our debt to those who died to give us the rights we not only enjoy, but also take for granted.

And, yes, she said she knew it was only a vote for the 1963 DeKalb High School homecoming queen, but troubling times were on the horizon once again and who knew where they would lead? And, in the future, would anyone remember the sacrifices of our men and women in service or the many civilians who were put to death because no one would stand for what was right? If we messed around and couldn’t even vote for a homecoming queen, how could we be expected to vote for something that mattered?

She said we were a generation on the threshold of great things. She said she had expected better of all of us. Rarely have I ever been as sorry as I was that day for my behavior.

And so, every time I have the chance, I vote. Every time. I don’t want to let her down again.

— Susan Marshall

Last modified Oct. 29, 2008

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