Sullivan: Tuning in to politics at an early age
The waitress at Christansen's Tavern at Jiminy Peak Resort said she was 23 and added in our conversation that she was looking forward to voting in the presidential election in November. A Berlin (N.Y.) High School and Elmira (N.Y.) College graduate, she was eligible to vote for a president four years ago. Just barely, she said. And she voted, in her mind, more for the novelty of it all rather than being a truly informed citizen.
This time, she said, as a four-year political science major and someone who did campaign work for a New York state representative, she feels a lot more confident and entitled about going to the polls in November. A soccer player both at high school and college, she's much more apt now to kick around political thoughts and ideas than she was four years ago.
I believe this young lady to be the rule.
Meet Brian Barry, the exception to the rule.
The Pittsfield resident is 19 and attends the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He's an Allendale Elementary, Reid Middle School and Taconic High product and the son of local attorney William Barry.
Said Brian, who will be voting in his first presidential election in a matter of weeks, "I don't really discuss politics with any of my friends, although I would like to. Most of the kids on campus when they're not in class are either studying in the library or listening to music. I'd have to say that the younger students here who will be voting will probably vote the same as their parents."
Added Brian, "I don't see a lot of students here looking ahead and wondering where they are going to be in five years. I don't seem them asking about what the job market might be like and whether there will be any chance to land a good job. Their folks are paying the tuition, they go to the dining hall and eat as much as they want. Not many are really looking at the real world."
But, they will be voting. You can do that at age 18. You can't drink alcohol, but you can vote. The question is how informed are the teen voters. To be fair, they are probably no more informed about the ups and downs of politics than the 21-year-old is about the dangers of alcohol.
Brian? Well, he and his younger brother, Matthew, have been throwing the political potato around for years. Matthew, 14, already has designs on a political carrer. William Barry previously served on the City Council and his four children used to watch him and the city's political wheels in motion on public television.
In fact, William was humorously aghast a year ago when Brian went to register as a voter for the first time and checked the box marked "Republican."
"An Irish Republican," chirped the attorney. "Have you ever heard of such a thing?"
It's a true story, said Brian, about his decision to buck the family tide. Brian added that being a Republican was "a better fit for me and how I think."
"Matt and I share the same bedroom at home, we've got bunkbeds," Brian said. "We had a television in the room and I'd watch FOX and he'd watch MSNBC."
Matthew is very pro-Democrat and MSNBC fits that bill. FOX, meanwhile, has a definite GOP slant and that suits Brian just fine. Watching Dad and their respective news source stations helped the pair cut their teeth on politics. For the record, Brian is the only Yankees' fan in the house. The rest represents Red Sox Nation. Brian did say he's not a rebel by nature.
"My brother and I read the newspapers every day and we're both pretty informed," Brian said. "A lot of people my age I don't think are well-informed."
And what about four years from now?
"Many of us will be on our own," Brian said. "More things are going to matter."
The waitress at Jiminy Peak gets it now. Brian thinks his age-group peers will get it the second time around, too. Politics is a learning curve, Brian believes, that can be accelerated.
In the meantime, the Barry brothers -- Matthew way to the left and Brian far to the right -- continue to put down a patchwork of their political agendas. Matthew went to the state Democratic convention in Boston while Brian joined the local Berkshire Republicans club. Matthew adorns the Barry front lawn with an Elizabeth Warren poster. That's until Brian comes home from school during breaks and replaces it with his Scott Brown poster. That, in fact, should happen over the Columbus Day weekend. So, if you drive by the house, don't blame Dad for the confusion.
Matthew, by the way, has a photo of himself and Gov. Deval Patrick. Brian has one with Brown.
The Barry dinner table? "We all get along," Brian said. "We're family."
OK, here's where we're going. We need the kids to speed up the learning curve. At age 18, it might be too young for them to figure out the depth of the water. But they at least need to get their feet wet. Many of today's high school freshmen and sopohomores may have the chance to help vote in a new president in four years. Will they be ready? It's going to be their world, not ours, and the sooner they start connecting the dots the better.
Who knows? Maybe someday Matthew and Brian will square off in a brother vs. brother battle for mayor of our wonderful city. Now that's something worth hanging around for.
Brian Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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