My first exposure to politics was when I was 10 years old. The year was 1996, and I wore my D.A.R.E. (to keep kids off drugs) shirt not as a statement but because I liked the way the red looked with my red jelly sandals, and donned the "I VOTED!" sticker bequeathed to me by my mother (I was an easy-to-please child) because I thought it made me look sophisticated.
"What did you vote for?" my friend asked, eyeing the red, white and blue circle.
"Don't you know?" I said, nose in air. "You're such a baby." I, of course, had no idea.
I voted when I turned 18 because my father told me it was important; so important, in fact, that he brought my ballot with him to Italy, where I was backpacking. We sat at a tiny trattoria and drank a bottle of chianti (compared to the fun people get to have in Europe when they turn 18, you can see how voting might take a slight back seat) as we picked over the candidates and issues.
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"Do you want me to tell you about this one?" my dad asked.
"Umm ... why don't you just tell me who you voted for?" I filled in my ballot based on his answers and faxed it in, self-satisfied. I had voted. I didn't know what for, I didn't know what it meant, but I knew I had voted.
It was a step.
I was one of the new voters who tend to go in one of two ways -- their parents' direction or as diametrically opposed a direction as possible. My dad fell into the latter category, commenting with each daughter's birth that he finally was able to compensate for his Republican parents' votes.
And then there are those like my friend Nima, who go in their own direction because they care so wholeheartedly about the change that is possible, the change that it is imperative for our generation to make.
This year, as hard as I was trying to float along in my bubble of ignorance and oblivion, it seemed like politics were inescapable. There was Rudy Giuliani's face on the television talking about gay marriage at the Republican debates while I was on the treadmill at the gym. There was an interview with Michelle Obama when I opened my Vogue. There were the pursed lips and the frowns of disapproval when I hesitatingly uttered the conversation-stopping (or inciting, if you're with someone vocal about their disgust), "I'm American." I want to be able to be proud of where I come from, and the first step in doing this seems to be taking part in where I come from. So this year, I decided to vote -- to really cast my opinion as to which direction our country should head, as opposed to merely filling in the bubbles.
So I turned to Nima, my go-to friend for anything to do with politics, soccer or Iran. Nima represents everything good that youth bring to the political field; namely, a different perspective and massive amounts of enthusiasm. I was browsing PerezHilton.com, a gossip Web site, when among the criticism of celebrities' drug binges and physical condition, I noticed a small political blurb. "Hey, Nima," I said. "Obama won in Iowa." He looked at me for a split second, pushed me out of the way to confirm with a more reliable source (apparently, CNN is more credible), then began running around the room screaming like a pit bull had attached its teeth to his leg. To be honest, it scared me a little. But it also inspired me.
"This is it," he told me, after he'd stopped hyperventilating. "This is our time to elect a president to represent us."
"But why?" I asked. I still didn't understand what was worth screaming about.
"Why? WHY? Because we're going to elect a president who will change our country for the better, and maybe even the world. Because these are the issues that our generation will have to take care of. We're going to be the ones who have to manage a screwed-up environment, to deal with a divided world, the potential collapse of Social Security. This is our chance to elect the man who can lead the way in uniting us to deal with these problems together as Americans." (And, yes, Nima always speaks like this).
It's true -- I should care because I am a part of this country, because as a 21-year-old, my voice should be heard equally to the voice of a 33-year-old or a 76-year-old. I just have to speak.
Liz Moody, a graduate of Johansen High School, is a student at the University of California at Berkeley. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.