Carter v Reagan (aka The Spin of Shame)

My first presidential election. 1979. Carter vs. Reagan. God bless him, how could Carter possibly have won re-election when dozens of Americans remained hostages in Iran?

Whatever that meant.merry-go-round

Here’s what the 1980 (1979) presidential election meant to me: Getting to ride the merry-go-round, and realizing you can’t spin fast enough to shake shame.

I was a young seven years old. I was a runt. I was shy. I was one of 10 white children at an elementary school with just over 100 students. I had no real friends to speak of, just one or two peers who condescended to pity me enough to occasionally invite me into playground games. (Cue “Rudolph” here.) To all the rest, I was invisible.

Except the day after the election results were announced. That day, some of the children – the big ones everybody listened to-slash-were scared of – made it clear that only dummies (pretty sure that was their word choice) had voted for Carter. Reagan won, so Reagan was the Man of the Hour, and everybody affiliated with poor Mr. Carter was a loser. Never mind that the oldest child on the playground was still a decade from voting age and not one of us could tell you what the Electoral College was. Maybe not even Reagan’s first name.

Didn’t matter. No losers were allowed on the merry-go-round.

Well I’d heard these two names – Carter and Reagan – bandied around at the dinner table at my house, part of that baffling other-worldly conversation that floated between adults, mysterious to a child like clouds: you knew more or less what they were made of, but had no hope of touching them yourself.

Still, I’d caught enough of the drift (if you’ll pardon the pun) to know my parents had voted Carter.

But that merry-go-round called like a slot machine to a gambler. Each board of its floor was a different color – or at least had been during the first Roosevelt administration, judging by the fade and peel of the paint. When you rode, holding on to one L-shaped bar in each hand, and leaned back, the G-force pinned you in place and it felt like you were blasting off into space. It was speed, freedom, immersion in adrenalin.

Was I going to miss this just because of some thing called an election? Was I going to spend another recess on the weedy, anthill-infested, gravelly, lonely edge of the school yard, tapping the little puffball fungi to watch their clouds of brown smoke?

By Jimmy, no. And so, for the first time in my young life, I broke rank.

Not only did I lie through my baby teeth and declare that of course my parents had voted Reagan, only dummies voted for Carter. I clinched my betrayal by then declaring, loud as my runt voice would carry, that, like the big cool scary kids, I wouldn’t share the merry-go-round with kids with loser parents, either. The kids who’d shown me pity, those poor among them whose parents were now determined to be “losers,” looked at me like I’d just sprouted blue hair. I turned from them with such snobbery I’m pretty sure my nose could have caught any rain.

As the equipment spun and my hair flew and my pulse raced with the thrill of the ride, even as I laughed at the wind and daredevil speed, my little heart was shrinking in shame.

I knew I didn’t even know Jack about that election. I knew I was siding with the mean kids. I knew, oh, how I knew I was lying, and I was just sure it was written all over my shamed face. I adored my mother and had unwavering respect for my father; to me, they still knew everything about right and wrong and were to be utterly trusted in their judgments. I had no reason to doubt them.

And yet I’d just denied the truth. I half-expected to hear a rooster crow from the edge of the school yard.

I spun like a wild child, but the moment had no shine.

I’ve given in to the suction of peer pressure since, and I’ve stood wavering against it, and I’ve stood firm against it. I’ve voted for poor candidates, and I’ve voted for some good ones; doubtless I’ll do both again. Either way I owned my choice, maybe even a little bit learned from it.

But I will never forget the shame I felt that day, spinning around with the wrong crowd, at my own cowardice and disloyalty. Better to scuff my secondhand shoes on the gravel at the edge of the school yard, alone but true. Better to hang out with the puffball mushroom clouds than be untrue or unkind.

Talk about spin.


Published in: on November 8, 2016 at 2:37 am  Leave a Comment  

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