It was lying on the radiator cover in the kitchen in a pile of school papers, under math and ancient civilizations and spelling tests.
The tattered pages belonged to the weekly newsletter that goes out to schoolchildren, a publication so cautious that it could barely take a stand in favor of the Ten Commandments. So, too, these words made a bland milkshake of the men running for the predency.
Still, as I looked at each candidate's picture and brief profile, I saw the words penciled in by children along the margins: "good," "bad," "good," "bad."
Good or bad? How did they know? What were they judging, these young readers of the Casper Milquetoast educational press? It turned out that the children who marked the paper were two-issue voters. They scanned and underlined the profiles to see how the candidates stood on these matters: 1) the environment and 2) peace.
I smiled to myself. Children! Save the seals, stop the wars. Kids and their ideals. Cute. Naive. Simplistic.
Standing there, I was, of course, an adult -- sophisticated, tough-minded, realistic . . . and patronizing.
But as I finished cleaning out the papers, I realized that fundamentally they were right. In the deepest sense, there are only these two interwoven issues: peace and the environment. Save the seals and the rest of us. That's the ball game.
Again they made me think. In one way or another we purposely make children the repositories of our ideals. We allow them to hold up the standards we let slip. We encourage them to believe in possibilities the way they believe in Santa Claus.
Kids. They save Pennies to Fight Pollution, take Walkatons Against War, bake Bread for Brotherhood, are told to be charitable and generous and trusting. And then to grow out of it, as if caring were a pair of jeans.
We raise our children with ethical time bombs, built-in disillusionment alarms. We allow them their ideals until they are 14, or 18, or 22. But if they don't let go, we worry about whether they will be able to function in the real world. Whether they are hardheaded, practical enough.
It is all quite mad. We regard toughness as adult. We regard cynicism as grown-up.
Adults know that clean air is all very nice, but it must be balanced against jobs. Adults know that helping others is neat, but it may take away their motivation. Adults know that peace is swell, but you may need annihilation to save your national security. Adults know that war is to be feared, but so is the fear of war.
Adults devour this "realistic" junk food, forgetting that ideals may be far more practical.
In our mid-life world, the environment is soft and business is hard-nosed. Peace is flowers, and war is the crushing artillery. The he-man, in all his redundancy, is our role model of mid-life.
In one way or another, most of our leaders had their left-handedness beaten out of them; most of our powerful whipped themselves into adulthood like G. Gordon Liddy.
So we watch the president hyperventilate through his press conference, sure that he has done the right thing because it was the hard thing. He has, he would say, grown in his job and turned out more aggressive, less trusting. We call this process of maturing.
Somewhere we learn that only by conquering our childhood instincts will we be admitted into the realm of adulthood, taken seriously. Those who refuse are forever regarded as childlike, resent it when they challenge us for not living up to them and then feel reassured when they give ideals up, like sleds or cartoons.
I suppose we make kids the repository of our highest ideals because children are powerless. In that way we can have ideals and ignore them at the same time. We can assuage our conscience and maintain our status quo.
We keep placng our hopes in the next generation, always the next generation.
I look at the papers in front of me and smile. Peace and the environment. They call this kid stuff.