I stood in front of the class of mostly freshmen students and asked how they felt about voting in their first presidential election.
Excited, I assumed. For all its warts, this was a historic presidential election.
“Personally I feel like it’s a circus," a young male student said. "So my friends and I kind of make fun of it. We don’t really take it seriously. I know we shouldn’t but … it’s one of those situations, would you rather cry about it or laugh about it?”
I couldn’t keep up with how many students raised their hands, desperate to be heard.
“It’s brought out the worst in just about everybody,” said a young woman sitting in the far back. “You can’t go on Facebook anymore without seeing fights … I’ve seen ugliness that I’ve never seen before.”
One by one, they complained about how both candidates lied; how issues such as climate change were being ignored; and how the media preferred click-bait headlines over substance this election.
“I’m not sure I’m going to be able to buy a house someday… and that’s just not what the candidates are addressing right now,” said a particularly sad-looking young man who sat directly in front of my podium.
I had flashbacks to 1992 when I was in their shoes.
A senior at Syracuse University, I remember so vividly how the race between Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Ross Perot shaped my college experience that year.
From watching the summer nomination conventions on the living room floor of an overcrowded college group house in Washington, D.C., to seeing really intelligent mock debates on campus that fall, the election was an awakening for me.
We were inspired and excited at what our place in the world would be. And when it came time to decide between a New York City media buying job and an offer to be small-town reporter in rural Pennsylvania, it was a no-brainer. I was going to be a journalist.
I didn’t sense the same youthful optimism from this class.
They are worried, frustrated, disappointed. But certainly not optimistic.
“For me its not that I like Clinton, it’s that I really, really dislike Trump,” said Mikala Stokes, a junior history major. “She represents what’s wrong with the government, but he represents what’s wrong with humanity and people.”
While Stokes is committed to voting early this weekend for Clinton, she admitted she doesn’t really like her.
And she wasn’t alone. I asked if any of the 21 Clinton supporters in class actually liked her, as opposed to just casting a vote against Trump.
“I’m the old one,” said a gray-haired woman, as she raised her hand and chuckled. She was the only non-traditional student in the class – and the only one who admitted to liking Clinton.
“This is the kind of result that makes the Clinton campaign weep,” he said.
Looking to expand my base of political soothsayers, I also visited my son’s eighth grade history class at Mariemont Junior High School two weeks ago.
I arrived to a stack of hand-written questions on loose-leaf paper, asking which polls were the most reliable and who would win Ohio.
These were rather sophisticated questions from 13- and 14-year-old kids.
I later learned that 90 percent of the class had watched every presidential debate -- not because it was class homework, but because they wanted to.
“They aren’t watching for policy discussion, they are watching to see if somebody gets punched in the face,” said their teacher, Joe Regruth. “But at least they’re watching.”
Over the years I have spoken to many classrooms and I don’t take it personally when students lose interest, leaving an embarrassed teacher scrambling to fill in with questions.
But that didn’t happen this fall.
I spoke to three classrooms and didn’t catch a single blank stare. They all asked thoughtful questions, but also spoke passionately about their disappointment this election.
Then it dawned on me. Is disappointment the great motivator this year?
Perhaps that’s why every student in Niven’s unhappy class (except for one student from Brazil) is registered and committed to voting on Tuesday.
Niven calls this minimizing your maximum regret.
“The idea is to do something because you want to avoid the worst possible outcome,” Niven said. “This is the upside of an eat-your-spinach election. You actually have to eat your spinach.”
In other words, students are so intensely interested in this election because they worry about what will happen if they ignore it.
This past weekend at a youth soccer tournament a neighborhood friend approached my husband and described the impact that my classroom visit had on her 13-year-old daughter.
Now she no longer wants to be a dentist when she grows up, she told him.