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Vote of Consciousness

Posted: 09/15/10 02:17 PM ET

This jingle was written yesterday by my daughter, Lori Berhon. Enjoy.

"Mark Lefkowitz & the Busy Bees / ee-aye ee-aye oh
We're always fast & we're never slow / ee-aye ee-aye oh
With Lori as the Vice
Everything will be precise
Everything will be just nice
Mark Lefkowitz & the Busy Bees / eeee-ayyyye eeee-ayyyye ohhhhh!"

music, trad. / lyrics possibly by Barry Levy &/or David Breger (aged 9/10)

The lyric above was the campaign song from when Mark Lefkowitz and I were the "Busy Bee" ticket for our fourth grade class election. If memory serves, the opposing ticket was the "Eager Beavers," but I can't remember who they ran. I can't even remember who won, which is pretty shocking as this was the one and only time I ever ran for school -- or any -- office. What I do remember (other than that campaign song, which lodges like a recumbent virus in my brain cells) is that this was run as much like a real election as possible, with campaign managers, songs, posters, speeches ... everything. Which meant a lot of people were involved. As we were a class of about 36 kids (one of four such in the school, at the height of the Baby Boom), I can't imagine how few unaffiliated voters there might have been to decide the election.

I stumbled across this memory yesterday, because it was Primary Day in New York. I live in the same city neighborhood where I grew up, so I vote in what was my elementary school. This morning, I left the house at 6:30 a.m. to vote before going to work. At that hour, there are few enough people in the streets that after a while they fade out and I find myself walking through the past. What happens when I reach the corner of 71st Road is that I start to hear another song in my head. When we were in second grade, my friend Dini Callas and I were allowed to walk to school together "alone." At some point, one of our mothers had warned us "no dilly-dallying," and the way kids have of taking up any phrase that amuses them, we'd turned it into a jingle, which we sang as we skipped along. I walked briskly, truly alone but with that silly song ringing in my ears. I crossed that intersection, where a walk/don't walk sign has replaced the barrel-chested, red-faced policeman in his brass buttoned blue tunic.

I kept walking, down the side street that still has the same one-family houses as it did back then. In an area that was primarily apartment buildings before my birth, this was a distinction then and is more of a distinction now. One of those buildings used to have a rose bush out front. It was the first rose bush I remember in my life. It was a beautiful rich dark pink, almost red, and I thought I could smell it even leaning from the respectful distance of the sidewalk. My second rose bush, the one in the yard of my father's friends Arlene and Hank, was the one that taught me about thorns.

Across the street, where there is now the nursery school portion of a Jewish Center, there were once a few old houses. They were torn down when I was in second or third grade, leaving nothing but their stoops and foundations. One of them, someone found, had been Helen Keller's last home. This was fascinating. Coming back to school after lunch, if we were early enough, we'd sit on the stoop that was still left and try to talk to each other in sign language that we'd learned from the back of the juvenile biography in the library. Today I can still spell out W-A-T-E-R.

I reached the school. It was a fairly new building when I started there, and hasn't been drastically changed in half a century. Today, the footprint of my kindergarten room is sprouting I-beams and a sign proudly announcing a new school addition to be open in 2012. My second, third/fourth and fifth grade classrooms all faced the street. They, at least, looked the same -- there's still artwork taped to them.

Usually I vote in the auditorium, or in what in my day was Mrs. Levy's room. I never had Mrs. Levy, but my sister did. It's always a shock to walk around the small desks and spot the interloping computers in the back of the room. I also miss the old blackboards and the shiny-surfaced chalk that you only ever found in school and never in the stores. This year however, voting was downstairs in the basement, which means entering the building from the side door. There's a patch of grass -- and to call it a patch is only being accurate -- where there used to be a handful of bulbs. Maybe there still are; it's hard to know in September. Those were my first daffodils. Once I spotted a robin hopping around them. And yes, that was my first real "robin redbreast."

Entering that door, you're immediately in the stairwell. As instructed by the signs, I started down them for the first time in decades. My first grade classroom was down there. The stairwell was wide enough for kids to walk double-file, but it's narrow enough for me to walk with both hands on opposite banisters. When I was in first grade, on Parent's Visiting Day, our school was visited by a reporter from one of the New York City dailies. I can't remember why, but I can easily find out; I still have the clipping, because in the picture they chose to publish with the article the photographer had me framed in the foreground. You can imagine my family's pride. After that year, since I didn't eat lunch in school, I only ever went downstairs when we had gym.

This year, New York introduced paper ballots. It's a simple, user-friendly system of filling in the ovals with a black pen (I guess #2 pencils are too easy to tamper with) and scanning the page. It was so early when I got there that there were few votes as yet; most of the people present were working the polls and buzzing together at their tables along the room's periphery. I signed into my district, picked up my ballot and walked to one of the many empty privacy booths.

I switched on the light, pulled out the thoughtfully provided magnifying sheet and put on my reading glasses. One of the rooms upstairs was where my results with a standard eye chart inspired a teacher to have my parents take me for my first glasses, and in the same room I first learned How Government Works. A few yards from where I was standing was the very room in which I'd learned to read. In rooms throughout this building, I'd filled in lots of ovals on forms like the one in front of me now. And in this building, I'd once run for office myself. Seven years in this building had prepared me for the task in front of me. I picked up the pen, and with a silent salute to my childhood, I performed the adult civic duty it was my right, privilege and responsibility to perform.

 
 
 

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