I am 23 years old, and in my conscious lifetime I have not seen an American President. I'm aware that while I have been alive, there have been people occupying the Oval Office and living in the White House. I'm aware that while I have been alive, there have been presidential elections, and I've even voted in a few of them. I've watched the debates and the stump speeches that accompanied those elections. I was in the crowd on the Mall in Washington D.C. on that cold January of 2001 when George Bush was inaugurated. So let me reiterate. In my lifetime I have yet to see an American President.
How can that be? Yes, I have seen men holding the office. But there is a marked difference between someone who is holding the office of president and someone who is actually an American President. It's not just matter of semantics; it's a matter of substance. When I was young, I was told that presidents are honorable men. They are wise, they are strong, and they are able. They are compassionate. They are bold. They are the absolute best the country has to offer. They are our leaders and they are worthy of our admiration and respect. You may disagree with their policies, but if nothing else they are worthy of respect. But this is not what I have seen.
When I was young, my elementary school held a student presidential vote. It was 1992 and I was in the third grade, and I was so excited to be participating even though I knew it wasn't real. I was too young to really know anything about the candidates, so I dutifully circled the name of the person I heard my parents speak the most warmly about. I suspect that's what most other students did, since the school election results echoed the results of the real election. I remember being very disappointed, not only because my candidate came in last but also because the candidate that came in first was the one that my parents really didn't like.
And that was the last that I thought about politics in the real world for quite some time. Sure, I went through social studies class every year, but I was too busy learning things about how wonderful Christopher Columbus was and how Pearl Harbor was a complete surprise. It wasn't until late high school that I took my nose out of my textbooks and really started paying any attention to the world around me. Sunday morning was always chocolate chip pancakes, the comics section of the newspaper, and my parents watching the television talking heads. Slowly I began putting the comics page down and listening up to what they were saying. Allegations of presidential misconduct. Did he inhale or didn't he? What was that about a cigar? Recorded phone conversations. Blue dresses and berets. What the definition of the word "is" is. What in the world was going on here? And the rest of the government didn't seem any better, bickering and tattling and running around like five-year-olds on the playground. To say that it was disappointing would be a supreme understatement. It was like a kind of slow, subdued shattering of everything I thought the world should be like. It was like a kind of creeping dread that would eventually lead to the coping method of flippant cynicism that seems to have taken hold of many of my peers as well.
At the time I had no idea what was to come next so I was able to hold onto some sort of hope that the next time around it would be better. This is America, I was told, and in America we have the remarkable ability to completely change our government every four years. Sure, other things I was told about the country seemed to be increasingly untrue, but this was one of the founding principles of our nation. We have a wonderful democracy where our leaders step aside at the end of their terms and the nation continues on to pursue her glorious destiny, continuing on into a future that would only get better and better. This seems to have not been the case.
As I watched the inauguration on the big screens from the very back of the Mall on that cold January day, I couldn't help but feel that creeping dread begin to come on. Protesters were everywhere, holding their handmade signs that were their personal expressions of discontent. But that's the way it's supposed to be in a free democracy. People are allowed and even expected to express themselves. No, what bothered me were the snipers that were clearly visible on the rooftops of every single building. This was before 9/11 and I had never really seen any strong police presence before with the possible exception of my town's annual Fourth of July parades, but that was completely different. This was menacing. Sure, this was an important event and there were important people around, so I figured it was understandable. But I remember being very unnerved at the thought that I could potentially be in someone's cross hairs. And they were absolutely everywhere. I pointed them out to some of my fellow students who hadn't noticed and they thought it was cool. I was much less amused.
So. Then we had the Dubya Presidency. I don't know what to say about it, really. Not much happened there in the beginning, except that I remember being amused at our incompetence when that spy plane went down in China; but a new show called "Survivor" was coming on and it looked interesting. We had a new president, one who claimed to be honest and compassionate. He was "a uniter, not a divider." The government had turned over and the country would move on. Surely everything would be all right. But then there was September and a series of historical events that changed the world, or at least changed my country's place in it anyway. You know, it's funny; when the world changed, I was outside in the sun reading a book under a tree, and I didn't even know the world had changed until hours afterward. But the world had indeed changed. We all had. Our innocence was officially over. We couldn't pretend to be ignorant of world events anymore. We were forced to pay attention. We'd been smacked in the face and told in no uncertain terms that things weren't as we thought they were and that things would never be the same again. I don't just mean America in general. I mean the youth of America. I don't think it was just me. I think it was a lot of us that finally woke up that day. As we were forced to pay attention to our country and our government and its response to world events, we began to see something really disturbing. Things that were happening didn't make sense. We claimed things that didn't seem right, we didn't follow through on things that seemed obvious to follow through on, we went in directions that seemed to have nothing to do with anything else. And it kept getting worse.
Sometimes I wonder where our future went. I wonder where I can find that country I learned about in elementary school; the one that always did the right thing and was a beacon of hope and prosperity. I wonder if I can buy a plane ticket to that place they used to call America, because I sure don't see it anywhere around here. Hope? Prosperity? What's that? Upward mobility seems increasingly to be a myth, just like all the other things I learned in school that turned out not to be true. Things like presidents who are honest, wise, and strong. Presidents who are bold and compassionate and the best leaders the country has to offer. Presidents I can respect. You see, I don't think they exist. I know I've never seen one.
I feel lied to. I feel deceived. I feel cheated. I feel robbed. I am sick and tired of a government that is not what it should be, not what it could be. I miss something I have never seen. I am angry and I am ready for a change. I am a young person in America.
Jessi Simek is a senior majoring in Communications and Political Science at the State University of New York at Brockport. She has a BA in East Asian Studies from SUNY Albany.