I voted last week in my Plainview neighborhood elementary school’s gymnasium. I arrived after my work day. I assumed there would be lines because of the political climate in the country. I assumed there would be cupcakes because of my childhood Election Day experience. There were neither.
Election Day in the 1960s at Mandalay Elementary School in Wantagh is one of my favorite childhood memories. School was closed back then for all elections, not just the presidential one. The students worked together for weeks making the lobby and hallways both voter-ready and marketing-driven for The Booster Club and Girl Scouts, the PTA and local Veterans of Foreign Wars. Each class was assigned an area to decorate. As third- and fourth-graders, we’d spend our time with our art teacher painting banners in the hallways of our classrooms. We’d roll out thin construction paper. We’d take fat, slightly stiff paint brushes out of the Chock full o’Nuts can he kept them in and swirl the word “VOTE” with smooth, silky red paint. Then we’d add little American flags in the corners. One year we painted an image of the front of our school, feeling proud because we thought it looked a little like the White House. The banners lined the hallways for days, drying in the fall sunlight pouring in from the corridor windows. We’d step around them on our way to lunch or gym class, careful not to kick the staple gun and door stoppers we used to hold down the edges. Election Day was a collaborative time. We felt unified. Patriotic.
The fifth- and sixth-graders were in charge of the Election Day Bake Sale, the most delicious of all bake sales. Long tables that lined the lobby were covered with plastic tablecloths, colorful paper rings and confetti. My mouth watered by Monday afternoon as I dreamed of a white, fluffy cupcake mounded with vanilla frosting. Come Tuesday, I’d pick a brownie and a krispy treat, too, because the bake sale was three for $1. I’d work the Girl Scouts table in my green uniform and sash, my felt beret bobby-pinned to the side of my head. We spent the two weeks before Election Day practicing how to exchange dollars for change. “You must be careful,” our troop leader explained. “A $1 bill can look like a $5 bill, especially on Election Day.” I was extra careful on those November Tuesdays.
Election Day was filled with the hustle of a community. Dads arrived early and rushed through the lines, quickly moving the levers on the voting booths, curtaining in their choice. Moms came later and lingered in the lobby, chatting and eyeing class projects displayed on the walls. They’d let younger siblings run up and down the corridors while they went to vote, confident someone would watch the kids. It felt exciting and safe and important through my 8-year-old eyes.
They say the times were different then, but were they? After all, it was the ’60s. There was strife and war and civil rights debates. There were protests in the streets. We heard whispers of it among the teachers and caught glimpses on our new color television sets. Sides were taken. That’s why we vote. We understood that. But back in 1967, surrounded by delectable sweets, voting felt uplifting. You went into the little booth, you chose, then you bought a brownie.
This past Tuesday when I voted, there was no energy, no noise, no children with Girl Scout sashes. There were no welcome posters painted by third-graders. No community camaraderie. I felt alone. I filled out my paperwork somberly and fed it into the ballot machine. I waited for the scan to complete. I walked out silently, glad it was over.
I got in the car and drove to the nearest bakery, where I bought myself a cupcake, a gooey, red velvet one with piles of vanilla frosting. I don’t know what is happening in the world today. What I do know is we need to bring back the bake sale on Election Day. Something needs to taste sweet.
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