Coming of Age Politically

It was easy to become politically aware in the tumultuous times of the sixties and early seventies.


After I went to the Democratic Caucus in Watertown on Saturday, I started thinking about when I first became politically aware.

People become politically aware at different ages; some never do at all. I think the kids who become politically aware at a very young age are mainly those whose parents are involved in politics, whether holding office or working on campaigns. When I was a kid, the little girl next door was taught to say her name and address, which she always followed with "Precinct 2"; her dad was involved in local politics.

I'd say I started becoming political aware somewhere around eighth grade. When I was in seventh grade all of the students in our school were given a survey to fill out, and though I don't remember the purpose of the survey or any of its other questions, one question asked our opinions on the Vietnam War, whether we thought we should escalate or de-escalate. At that time, I had no idea what those words meant so I asked a classmate who I thought would know. She gave me quick definitions and I ended up voting for 'escalate' because that involved striving to win, and I figured winning was what you were supposed to do. At the time, I knew little about the war, nor did I truly understand the true meaning, and implications, of those two words central to the question.

As I started becoming more politically aware, it was sometimes reflected in my school work. In ninth grade, we read Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" in English class and the teacher also assigned us to write a parody of the "friends, Romans, countrymen" speech. Although I don't remember if I turned this in or just did it for my own amusement, I wrote a parody about the trial of the Chicago 7. In a history class, I wrote a paper on Che Guevara.

In my junior year, my friend and I made a presentation in front of the class. I don't remember what the assignment was, but we had decided to play Country Joe and the Fish's "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag." It's on the "Woodstock" album and right before the song itself starts, Country Joe leads the crowd in the "Fish Cheer," a call-and-response piece that starts with "Give me an F" and ends with the crowd repeatedly shouting the answer to his "What's that spell?".

Because the cheer segued right into the song, there was no line of demarcation on the vinyl to indicate where the cheer ended and the song began. My friend and I argued over who was going to cue it up to play for the class, and I was the lucky one who had to do it. All the kids in class knew how the song went and they were watching in anticipation, thinking some of the Fish Cheer would be heard. Miraculously, I cued the record perfectly and heaved a sigh of relief that I wasn't going to get in trouble.

For my senior year English class, we could choose among mini-courses that each focused on one subject and lasted one term (quarter). One of the classes I took was Rock Poetry, in which we discussed lyrics of songs that we liked. We each had a turn to choose four songs, bring in the records, and write out the lyrics to mimeograph and hand out to the class. Then we'd all listen to each song and discuss its lyrics. I chose political songs, such as Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's "Chicago," to bring to class.

When I went to the East Junior High, we even had our own protest when a popular teacher did not receive tenure. Kids didn't show up for class in the morning, and we all marched to the superintendent's office on Common Street and protested in front of the building. Though I'd never had that teacher, I participated in the protest and I remember seeing myself among the group of students on the news coverage of the protest.

When I was growing up, it was hard not to be aware of what was going on, especially if you watched the evening news or read the paper. It was a very tumultuous time: the Vietnam War, protests against the war, the draft, draft dodgers, the Democratic convention in Chicago, Kent State, the assassinations of MLK and RFK. (Of course, the assassination of President Kennedy was a huge event that affected everyone, and though I remember where I was when I heard about the shooting, I was too young then to be aware of political implications.)

Because of the times, most kids were probably at least somewhat politically aware, which may not have been the case in some other decades. I don't know how politically aware today's high school students are, though I often hear complaints that kids don't care about anything these days. But I do know one young man at Watertown High who participates in local political activities and is very happy that he will be old enough to vote in the next election. I hope there are a lot more like him out there.


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