Honoring Jimmy Carter: A Kindergarten Lesson I Still Remember
By Devika Koppikar, DA China Member/Former Board Member
As news broke in late February that former President Jimmy Carter had entered hospice care, my mind flashed back to 1976. I was attending kindergarten in a suburb of Boston, Mass. One fall afternoon, our teacher called us to the reading rug. She showed us a picture of two men: one was then-President Ford and the other was former Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter.
“Which man do you like?” my teacher, Mrs. Dennehy, asked the class. My instinct gravitated towards Ford, but when I saw that most of the other kids pointed to the Georgia Governor, I held back. The teacher then told us, in age-appropriate terms, what a president did, what elections involved and the importance of voting.
It was a lesson I would never forget because it planted a seed. For a child accustomed to hearing stories about kings, queens and fairy godmothers, the idea of “the people” picking their leaders empowered me. The lesson encouraged me to go home and talk to my parents about “current events.”
“Which of the two men do you like?” I asked my parents. “Carter,” they answered.
I didn’t think much about presidents or voting until January, when new outlets covered the inauguration and featured President Carter’s daughter, Amy, who’s in my age group. I idolized Amy and thought it would be cool to live in the White House! About two years later, my family and I made a trip to Washington, DC, now my hometown and I became fascinated by the nation’s capital.
As I better understood what role a “president” played, I started following the news and got captured by the Iran Hostage Crisis. I also remember Sen. Ted Kennedy running against Carter in the primary.
Then, the 1980 election came around. My elementary school newspaper asked us who we would vote for if we could vote: Carter, Ronald Reagan, or John Anderson?” I, along with two other students raised our hands for Carter, while the majority of kids raised their hands for Reagan. As election night came, I still rooted for Carter.
Sadly, he lost. I remember watching President Reagan’s inauguration and seeing the pain in President Carter’s eyes. I felt helpless.
“Why can’t kids vote?” I asked. I couldn’t wait until I turned 18 and could cast my own ballot. In the meantime, I continued participating in any way I could. I wrote letters to the editor, watched the State of the Union addresses, and stayed glued to the television during the DNC conventions and debates.
When I turned 18, I registered to vote, on my birthday. I went on to major in government as an undergraduate and in journalism as a graduate student. After grad school, I got a job as the press secretary to Congressman Elijah E. Cummings (D-Maryland).
As for Carter, despite a devastating loss, he refused to become a footnote to history. Rather, he redefined himself as the epitome of service. His charitable work and service to the community made headlines.
I never met President Carter in person. However, I did have the privilege of listening in on a call between him and Congressman Cummings, who discussed voting rights in the aftermath of the 2000 Election debacle.
As life sunsets on this great man, I say “what a life!”
Though history tried to write him as a loser, he rose above the ashes. Nobel Peace Prize, human rights advocate, peacemaker, election monitor, and a man who served the disadvantaged, even while recovering from cancer. The biggest lesson I learned from Carter’s example was to continue serving no matter what the circumstances.
As expats, we often may feel like I did when Carter lost in 1980: helpless, unable to act or voiceless to speak on the issues going on back home. Rumors even float around that expats cannot vote.
But nothing is further from the truth. As an American citizen, you can vote from anywhere in the world. If you’re not already registered, go to the nonpartisan www.votefromabroad.org to make sure you get a ballot for the next election. As each state has its own set of policies (like whether you can vote by email or must send your ballot by snail mail), you can email [email protected] if you face any difficulty navigating the process.
Craving a deeper discussion or hand-on involvement? Democrats Abroad country chapters host events such as film screenings, lecture series and phone banks. In Shanghai, close to where I live, we have brunches, “Taco Tuesday” happy hours, voter registration drives and other events to speak up for issues back home. For more information, visit https://www.democratsabroad.org/. If you live in a country or city that does not have a DA chapter, you can still get involved at the regional level.
But know this: whether it is simply to vote or get more actively involved, you have a resource to continue being an active citizen.
Take it from the man we’re honoring himself. In what will likely be one of his last op-eds, President Carter wrote the following in New York Times in January 2022:
“Our great nation now teeters on the brink of a widening abyss. Without immediate action, we are at genuine risk of civil conflict and losing our precious democracy. Americans must set aside differences and work together before it is too late..
We must find ways to re-engage across the divide, respectfully and constructively, by holding civil conversations with family, friends and co-workers and standing up collectively to the forces dividing us.” <https://www.cartercenter.org/news/editorials_speeches/jimmy-carter-nyt-op-ed-010522.html
As this great man transitions to next world, let’s honor him by continuing to do our civic duty. Let’s never let our country fall into abyss. Just as President Carter rose from defeat, let’s continue building our nation, no matter where on earth we live.
Devika Koppikar is a communications strategist and international educator who lives in Wuxi, Jiangsu Province, China. She previously served as an at-large board member for Democrats Abroad-China. In the early 2000’s, she worked as the press secretary/speechwriter to U.S. Congressman Elijah E. Cummings. A Virginia voter, her hometown the Washington, DC Metro region.