Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Election Day

It is just after 6 a.m., and already cars are gathering in the chill of Shamrock's tiny front parking lot. Signs in varying shades of red, white and blue cluster near the entrance, placed there sometime during the long pre-election night. Another November Tuesday, another day to vote.

Although I usually work the Shamrock Gardens poll for school board candidates, our representative is unopposed this year. So I'm going to work it for our PTA. We're not running for anything. But we need support.

Precinct 44 has 1,600 registered voters. As many as 400 may walk through the doors today. Although they all live in Shamrock's attendance area, almost none have children at the school. For most, this is the one day out of the year they come to Shamrock. And many of them, unlike our parents, have money they could give. (Most of our parents live and vote in a neighboring precinct, just on the other side of Shamrock Drive).

Instead of election signs, I have a board with pictures of our projects and our kids. Instead of candidate cards, I have volunteer sheets and slim green donation flyers.

My spiel is simple. The PTA has swell projects: our T-shirt program, our butterfly and vegetable gardens, our parent dinners, other things. But because our parents have so little money, we can't finance our work with school-based fundraisers. We have to reach outside. And while these voters don't have children here, we are their neighborhood school. We do have that.

People come by in a steady stream – mostly twos and threes, rarely a big rush. As the sky lightens, school buses start to arrive, along with the distant chattering of kids headed for breakfast or for class. Two boys appear at the front doors, bearing triangles of folded red, white and blue cloth. There's not much wind, so the flags they hoist lie limp against the pole.

As the morning stretches on, it becomes clear that working a poll for the PTA is pretty much like working it for a candidate. Some people who stop to talk are genuinely interested. Others politely pretend to be. Still others brush by quickly, armed with stony "don't speak to me" stares.

The voters are predominantly white (the precinct is 76 percent Caucasian), but they vary in many ways. Some drive Porsches or Mercedes; others come in battered pickups. I meet people who went to Shamrock in the 1950s, when it was a brand-new school full of the neighborhood's kids. I meet two women who were PTA presidents long before me. I meet young couples who have recently moved in.

I've brought my trowel and two bags of daffodil bulbs to plant in our front gardens. In between voters, I dig holes. Sometimes I miss a voter or two, but the daffodil bulbs are firm, they feel good in my hand and I know that they will bloom.

Other poll workers come and go, working for one candidate or another. The day started cold, but by the afternoon the sun shines hot. I shed layer after layer, and seek the shade.

There are a few awkward moments, especially with the families we have tried and failed to recruit. One bright, happy little girl stops to chat, blithely explaining that she could have come to Shamrock, but did not. Her father chimes in that their decision was "close." His voice is cheerful, as though almost coming to Shamrock actually meant something.

What do I say? I can't tell a child how much I wish her parents had decided to be part of the solution, not the problem. I can't tell a child that close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. So the conversation runs on until the girl and her sister skip off, and I can go back to planting bulbs.

As time goes on, my spiel improves. I hate to ask for money, but I am getting better at it. As I hand out the flyers I began to tell people in a mock-serious voice that we have no costly overhead or fancy executive salaries at the Shamrock PTA – referencing a recent scandal over nonprofit executive pay. The inevitable laugh softens the request, at least for me.

Just before school lets out, the boys return to lower the flags and fold them once again. Kids fill the sidewalk for a while, waiting for rides and after school events. Then they move on, and we are back to voters and poll workers.

As evening starts to fall, the stream of voters picks up a bit. Peter and Parker show up at five. The polls will be open until 7:30. But I've been talking all day, and I'm tired. So we greet a few more people, gather our flyers, and head home.

It has been a good day. The bulbs are in the ground. I have three $100 checks in my back pocket. I've handed out nearly 100 donation flyers, and a few volunteer forms. In the spring, our front gardens will be filled with yellow daffodils. We'll see what happens with the rest.

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