Spend any time in a United States elementary school and you will see population presented as a number, maybe with a human clip art character to stand in place for all citizens. The clip art character usually looks like a game piece: circle head, boxy body for boys, boxy skirt-shaped body for girls. It's the same figure that appears on bathroom doors, on pedestrian crossing signs—it's the figure that means human.
It makes sense to reduce humans to a single graphic when we're trying to convey where to cross the street. It makes sense to create an icon so non-English speakers know which bathroom to use.
But I think what happens when we cross from child to adult, with that ever-present icon in our line of vision to represent humans, is that we start to think of the citizens of this country as a faceless crowd, an enormous number, a set of statistics.
It is easier to consider people in gingerbread man-like form. It is much harder to stretch our minds to consider the very real lives that contain very real needs, and harder still to think about giving up things you want in order to ensure that people you don't know can meet their basic needs.
Teaching population in this way in elementary school textbooks set us up for what we see now: an election where people tend to be speaking about the "I" rather than the "us." With so many people struggling to fulfill basic needs, and others discouraged because while their needs are met, their wants go unfulfilled, we cling harder to the things we do have, hording for ourselves.
To ensure that my twins don't grow up reducing everyone unseen in the country to a human icon, I started talking about the issues in this election in terms of people they know and asking them to expand their imaginations to consider people they don't know and people they may or may not meet in the future, people who have very real lives with very real needs. Just like us.
When you start to look at the issues this way, it stops being about "us" and "them.". I always tell the twins that we don't vote based on how our life is right now, but we vote based on what could be since that "could" is someone else's "is." All of our hypotheticals are someone else's reality.
It is the same concept that governs insurance; you need to pay for it whether you use it or not, and we buy it based on the possibility of hypothetical situations in the future. Voting also requires us to think ahead. Voting shouldn't come from a place of comfort, but we should think about the difficulties of others and how we'd want aid, support, or rights if we (or people we love) ever found ourselves in different circumstances.
I was moved watching the First Lady's speech at the Democratic National Convention. It was clear from the emotion that caught in her throat that while we see Barack Obama as the president, she sees him as her husband, the father of her children, a human being with a face. In other words, he's not a remote entity but a very real person that she loves deeply. And that is true for all of us—we have the people we love, the ones that we keep in mind as we vote, wanting the best for those we know. But it also drove home the point that every person we don't know is someone else's loved one. That there are no nameless, faceless people in America.
I encourage you to do what we've asked the twins to do: remove that human icon graphic out of their heads for a moment. Humanize the vote by considering all the people you know and all the people you don't know, and remove the concepts of "us" and "them," instead embracing the idea that we are all Americans, all with individual wants and collective human needs.
Melissa Ford is the author of the award-winning website, Stirrup Queens, as well as two books: Life from Scratch (BellBridge, 2010), a novel about a blogger finding her voice after a divorce, and Navigating the Land of If (Seal Press, 2009), a guide to infertility and pregnancy loss. Stirrup Queens was recognized by the Wall Street Journal as one of the top ten motherhood blogs. Melissa is also an editor at BlogHer, and completed her MFA at the University of Massachusetts. Ford lives in Washington, D.C. with her writer husband, Joshua, and their twins. You can find her on Facebook.