Braden Bell's Blog

August 17, 2016

 Dear New, Overwhelmed, Slightly Worried Middle School Parent, 

When I spoke to you today, I saw the familiar signs in your face and heard them in your voice. Around your friends you are putting on a good front. It's not all an act; you are excited, and you trust your child. If you are fortunate, you feel good about the school and all of that. But you're still worried. Even if you've had an older child, you realize that every child is a whole new experience. Maybe this is your first middle schooler and you hear the jokes and murmurs of other parents. "Good luck surviving middle school...." that sort of thing.

I want to tell you something: It's going to be okay. It really is. I say that as a teacher with many years under my belt, and as the parent of one current adolescent and three recovering adolescents who show every sign of productive, happy adulthood.

Your child is going to grow this year. If you can accept growth rather than ease and comfort, you are all set. 

 Your child will have some wonderful triumphs; your child will also mess up royally. That's okay because, if you let it, this experience will teach her something. That really demanding teacher will take points off the project, but your child will learn! It might take a few times, but having learned it in middle school, she'll not need to learn it when it's a project for her college professors or boss. 

Your child will likely connect to a teacher on a meaningful, life-changing level; chances are, there will be at least one teacher who your child will not like. This teacher will seem arbitrary and unfair and unreasonable and...the reality is that this teacher will probably end up blessing your child's life as much as the more likable one. Truly. I'm not saying it's fun or joyful, but learning to deal with someone who is difficult now will be immensely valuable to your child as he goes out into the world.* 

I can almost guarantee you that your child will have some social issues this year. Friends will inexplicably change and do unpredictable things that will baffle and hurt your child. This brings us to one of the most challenging aspects of middle school: it's filled with middle school students, and these children are going to be every bit as insecure and unstable as your child will be at times, and will thus act, not like mature, kind adults, but like immature adolescents. Sadly, Mother Theresa, Gandhi, Malala, and Abraham Lincoln are not on the friend menu. Your child, I fear, is stuck with other children, each of whom brings their own doubts and insecurities, not to  mention an evolving mind, body, and set of social skills to the equation. But it will pass. The inevitable plate tectonics of social relationships will end up helping your child develop stronger, better, deeper friendships. It will help her develop herself as a person. 

I'm not saying that everything about this year will be rainbows and unicorns. What I am saying is that it will be okay in the long run. Your sweet caterpillar has just spun a chrysalis. Your embryonic adult is inside an egg getting ready to hatch. In both of these examples, it is the struggle to emerge that gives the young creature the requisite strength to flourish. A butterfly flies because emerging is difficult. A chick thrives because breaking out of that shell is hard. I can't tell you there won't be tears. There will. But tears are to maturity like sweat is to hard work (I realized I'm using a lot of images and metaphors. Humor me. You think first days of school are hard on students and parents?)

Don't get me wrong. It's not going to be all struggle and difficulty. There are going to be exhilarating moments of new freedom and new friendships and new opportunities. There will be a lot of stuff that is just plain fun. You are going to get your share of eye rolls, head tosses, shoulder shrugs, and teenage tantrums. You are also going to have new chances to connect to your child in really cool ways. There will be other people watching out for your child, perhaps unexpected mentors and guides.

But what I want you to understand is that even when things seem not to be going well, when there seem to be problems, everything will be okay. Challenges are a feature, not a bug, of adolescence and they will help shape your wonderful child into the masterpiece that she or he is ready to become. 

You will feel unequal to the task at times, but I'm telling you that you are absolutely equal to it. The secret is not overreacting. Truly, you don't have to do as much as you think you do. Love your child, but allow them to struggle. Give them empathy and ideas, but don't be the rescue crew, a helicopter or a snowplow. 

Please realize that every adolescent is immature. And not just a little bit. I mean, 180-proof, weapons-grade, industrial strength, jaw-dropping, heart-pounding immaturity. That's normal. It's not you. And it's not them. Not really. It's a lack of a pre-fontal cortex and key chemicals in the brain. These will all come back eventually. You need to know that. Be as calm as you can and don't panic. The irresponsibility, forgetfulness, attitude, the overwrought emotions--all of that is normal. If you can mentally put a sign on your child's mind that says, "Pardon our mess while we renovate," you'll be in the right place. 

It really is a wonderful time. You have a fantastic adventure ahead of you. It's like a hike--there will be ups and downs, peaks and valleys. And then, you'll get to the summit and you'll have this wonderful young man or woman. Maturity will kick in and you'll be amazed at this human masterpiece. 

Then she'll head to college. But that's another post. 

For now, it's going to be okay. 

Note: I know it's not really Monday. Middle School Mondays is a series of blog posts I do dealing with raising and teaching adolescents. It used to happen on Monday, but now, every day is Middle School Monday if the inspiration strikes. You can read past posts here

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Published on August 17, 2016 16:16 • 4 views

August 14, 2016

.goodreadsGiveawayWidget { color: #555; font-family: georgia, serif; font-weight: normal; text-align: left; font-size: 14px; font-style: normal; background: white; } .goodreadsGiveawayWidget p { margin: 0 0 .5em !important; padding: 0; } .goodreadsGiveawayWidgetEnterLink { display: inline-block; color: #181818; background-color: #F6F6EE; border: 1px solid #9D8A78; border-radius: 3px; font-family: "Helvetica Neue", Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; font-weight: bold; text-decoration: none; outline: none; font-size: 13px; padding: 8px 12px; } .goodreadsGiveawayWidgetEnterLink:hover { color: #181818; background-color: #F7F2ED; border: 1px solid #AFAFAF; text-decoration: none; } Goodreads Book Giveaway Orison by Brandon GrayOrisonby Brandon Gray

Giveaway ends September 03, 2016.

See the giveaway details at Goodreads.

Enter GiveawayI'm running a giveaway on Goodreads. Enter for a chance to win one of two print copies of Orison. The giveaway begins on August 16th. 
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Published on August 14, 2016 20:17 • 1 view
Picture ​The books in the Middle School Magic trilogy are currently all available for free through KindleUnlimited. I'm not sure how long the publisher will keep them there, so snag your copies now. 
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Published on August 14, 2016 10:01 • 2 views

August 11, 2016

Picture I am so excited to share this cover! I've been working on this book intermittently for years now. This summer, I got serious about it and worked on intensely. My experience with Orison has intrigued me about the world of independent publishing. So, I hired a wonderful editor and cover designer (Steven Novak). Currently, I"m hoping to have the book ready in print and ebook by early September. If you want to get an email when it's ready to order, click here

Here's a little about the story:
"When soul-eating demons overrun the home world of the seraphim, Kaelis is charged to escape with the seraph queen's heir. Unaware, they are being followed by two demons, Kaelis flees with the infant to Earth. Accustomed to a world of fiery beauty, Kaelis and the baby struggle to survive. When the demons partner with a local human gang to chase Kaelis down, he is forced to use the last of his strength to fight them. He leaves the baby with a human family and then disappears. 
Determined to find the hidden seraph heir, one of the demons tricks a human woman, and fathers a child. Half-human, half-demon, the Soul Stealer's child will grow into a living weapon, a predator who will hunt the hidden seraph, driven by demon instinct and guided by human cunning. 
 As the two children grow into teenagers, they are drawn to each other by forces neither understands. The queen's heir will have to find the strength to love unselfishly, and the Soul Stealer's child will have to find out if a human heart can overpower a demon's soul.
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Published on August 11, 2016 17:04 • 27 views

July 19, 2016

Good morning! I've been on vacation and traveling. And, it always takes a few weeks for me to recharge after school gets out. So, posting has been light and, admittedly, somewhat lame. However, I do have some fun news coming up soon. For now, though, I'm having a $20 gift card drawing for subscribers to my newsletter. The catch is that you have to be subscribed to my newsletter. So...what are you waiting for? Sign up here. 
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Published on July 19, 2016 09:20 • 7 views

July 7, 2016

I am happy to let you all know that Orison is on sale during July. Only $1.99. So, if you have been holding out for a good deal--this is it. It would be a great read at the beach, or at your mountain cabin. Or anywhere in-between, really. You can get it here

If you have already read it, I'd be grateful if you'd leave a review on Amazon. It makes a big difference to have reviews. 

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Published on July 07, 2016 11:34 • 4 views

July 3, 2016

 Well, this post might seem a bit grumpy, but I don't mean it to be. I really don't. I'm just trying to communicate clearly. You see, I'm an introvert, and not just a little introvert. I'm a raging, radical introvert. I would probably be happy being a hermit, quite frankly. But that's not possible in our world, at least not for me right now. 

A lot of times when I tell people I'm an introvert, they don't believe me. See, the world is run by extroverts. In order to function successfully, you kind of have to play by their rules. So, I've learned. I can engage with people for a time, and I can be funny or fun and charismatic in public. And, I genuinely do enjoy people. Some of my favorite memories are of being with friends and family at various events (such as dinners or small gatherings--I enjoy these much more than big parties, although they can be fun too). 

But this all comes at a cost for me; it drains my energy, even if I enjoy it. That energy can only be renewed by being alone. By having quiet time to myself. That is the most basic definition of introversion. Extroverts gain energy by being around people. Introverts lose energy by being around people (in part because they try to share their energy with others). They generate energy by being alone. They are not necessarily shy or socially awkward (although that certainly can be connected). The thing with introverts is that they are like cars that can drive a while, but need to be re-filled up with gas. And that takes time. And quiet. And while they are refilling, chances are they won't want to do anything.

It took me a lot of years to realize that this wasn't defective, nor was it odd or selfish to want to be alone. It's how I'm built. For an introvert to want quiet time is selfish in the same way it is selfish for a mammal to want oxygen, sleep, or food.

It is not defective or eccentric unless one defines "normal" in a very specific way. And often, dear extrovert friends, you do that. It does not seem to occur to you that your preferences/needs might be just as odd to us as ours are to you. The fact is, we are willing generally to live and live. You want to go to a party every night? Great! You want to be with people all the time? Enjoy it. But can you not understand that for us, that's not really fun? And, can you not understand that your preferences are not some sort of divine, natural default setting? It's your default setting. But that doesn't make it universal.

Imagine a food you really dislike. Now, imagine that you live in a world where everyone around you loves that food."Hey, come on over, we're having some squid tongue!" Everything you do--from work to personal relationships are somehow based on liked squid tongue. "But I don't like squid tongue," you say. Those around you respond with everything from horror to amused condescension. "Of course you do! Everyone loves squid tongue!" 
"You just haven't had it cooked right. Here, try my squid tongue."
"Are you crazy?"
"Maybe with counseling you can learn to like it."
Because everyone around you eats it, you learn to manage. You learn to eat it and not gag, and you learn to pretend to like it because, the reality is, sometimes you simply have to eat it. But when you go home, when you are on your own time, you don't want to eat squid tongue. You don't want to ban it. You don't begrudge others who enjoy it. You just don't want it. That's all.

Sometimes, you really don't want to go eat squid tongue, but people you love want you to. And you don't want to disappoint them. So you go. But you don't enjoy it. And they can tell. So then, they make you feel guilty; "Boy, we worked hard to make this squid tongue special for you." And you want to scream: "But I didn't want it! I told you that. I don't like squid tongue. But you forced me to come. So I did because I love you--and now you are upset because I can't enjoy it like you do. You took that as being grumpy or ungrateful. Can't you see that your unwillingness to acknowledge our differences puts me in an impossible position?"

A few years ago, I was talking to a friend. His wife has insomnia to the extent that she sleeps all day and is awake all night. I asked how she was doing. He shrugged. "She's fine. Our life works well for us. The only problem is when people decide she's abnormal and try to fix her or make her feel bad about it."
And that's all I can say about introverts. There's no malice. There's no anger. We just don't think most of what extroverts is fun. We might be dutiful and good sports, but it would be nice if you could not insist on our participation, and do us the courtesy to realize it's not that we are defective. We are not sulking or pouting. We are not being difficult. We just like different things. And when you insist we participate in things you love that we don't, you are setting us both up--we will never love it like you do. You will sense our hesitation and get offended. And then we are the bad guy. But if we refuse to come--knowing this will happen--we are also the bad guy. 

Why is that so hard to understand? 
If you do understand, and you want to be considerate of the introverts in your life, may I suggest a few things? Feel free to invite them to something. They might go and have a great time--and add to the great time everyone else as well. But, they might not. So, tell them--and mean it--that there is no pressure to attend. Acknowledge that it's simply an option if interested. Understand that their lack of participation does not mean they don't care about you any more than your not wanting to sit silently with them for hours without talking means you don't care about them.. You don't really need to change anything except your expectations that your introverted friend will enjoy something. The wonderful thing about introverts generally is that we tend to be happy to let others do their own thing. We won't try to convert you. And if an introvert does attend an event, allow them their space. For example, I chaperone school trips where I am with students and other adults for 12+ hours a day. During these times, I tend to find a quiet place to myself during lunch or other breaks. At some family events, such as Thanksgiving, or family vacations, I slip away for a time. I am very grateful to my wife for understanding this. 

One other thought: don't try to evaluate an introvert's feelings about you based on social interactions. We might seem aloof or distant if you talk with us. It's likely that we are not upset at all. Possibly we are just uncomfortable in the situation, or just being quiet. Remember that social interaction takes effort for us. It has nothing to do with our personal affection or respect for you. 

I should add that our time away from people is not only a need for us. It is a social benefit. When I am away, I am recharging. I am also thinking about my students and how I can help them. I am thinking about my family and what they need. I am thinking about my congregation at church and how I can serve them. I am planning books that entertain or bring thought. I'm planning plays that will bring joy, and I might be thinking about ideas that could help bring peace or enlightenment. That's what introverts are doing all over the world. In other words, that down time might end up bringing real benefits to people all around them. 

So, go  have your party. Go out on the town. Hang out with your friends. Do it with our blessing. Just don't be annoyed if we don't come. Really. We're fine. We'll be better off for our quiet time, and it's possible the world will be as well. 

Update: A thoughtful friend shared this comment: "I totally appreciate the introverts in my life. But as an extrovert occasionally I feel like the introverts I know treat me as if I'm shallow and less intelligent because I'm also cheerful, chatty, and bubbly. I hope we can all see the strengths in our differences. Extroverts are not inherently shallow. Introverts are not inherently unsocial. We all just gain energy in different ways." I really agree with this statement. I often feel that as an introvert, I'm outnumbered and misunderstood, and in a defensive posture. It's important not to respond by being dismissive of extroverts. So, to be clear: I don't think of extroverts as superficial or anything negative. I admire you, honestly, and sort of wish I was like that. But I'm not. But I'm good with y'all being y'all. 
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Published on July 03, 2016 11:42 • 3 views

June 17, 2016

Picture Since watching the 2016 Tony Awards earlier this week, I’ve been thinking of Irving Berlin’s line: Theres no people like show people…”
Theater has been one of my greatest joys since childhood. James Corden’s opening number — That could be me — brought those memories back in a rush: the mounting excitement of sitting in the audience next to my mother as a little boy, wondering what magic awaited us behind the closed curtain; the years I spent as an adolescent playing the smallest possible named roles, a testament to the kindness of my sweet directors, who saw my diligence, dedication, and inability to dance, but still found somewhere to put me. I felt sure then that my calling was to be on Broadway — as a performer, and then later as a director. I believed deeply in the power of that particular dream, convinced in my youth that my biggest problem would be fitting my name in so many places on a single marquee.
Spoiler alert: I did not end up on Broadway. I am a middle-aged middle school theater and chorus teacher, and dad living out a story different from the one I once imagined, but no less joyful. My masterpieces are not plays but students. They have names, not titles. They’re on loan to me during a period of their lives best described as a messy dress rehearsal, and will hopefully have running times close to eighty or ninety years. I am their director, but only for a little while. So I try to make the time count, to teach them as much as I can about not only the theater, but also about life.
I worry about whether they’ll remember their choreography on opening night, but I worry more about whether they’ll remember to be kind to one another. I want them to make authentic choices in the moment onstage, but I care far more about the decisions they make off-stage. I want them to create memorable characters in our plays, but I am infinitely more concerned about the content of their own character.
Because these things are always on my mind (even during summer), I hope my students were watching the Tony Awards or that they’ll find some time to watch the program online (available at this link). That’s right— your teacher wants you to enjoy two hours of screen time. Because in more ways than I can count, all the lessons I strive to teach my students played out in that show, gracious and generous acts shining among the lights and glamour of Broadway.
The importance of persistence? Consider Jayne Houdyshell’s poignant remarks about winning her first Tony at age 62. Or her co-star, Reed Birney, who quipped that the beginning of his forty-year career — the first thirty-two years or so — had been a bit rough.


Prioritizing what matters most? Look at Lin Manuel-Miranda. He had the night every theater kid dreams of, the kind of monumental triumph few people ever experience. But instead of taking a perfectly justified victory lap, this gentle man used his time at the microphone to read a sonnet to his wife about the power of art and love to change the world. Picture Being part of a team? Renée Elise Goldsberry gave a stunningly beautiful speech paying tribute to her Hamilton cast-mates: “When one of us wins, we all win, because we are one.” Then in a moving moment, she held her award aloft and expressed her awe and gratitude for the blessings of both career and family: “God gave me Benjamin, he gave me Brielle, and he still gave me this.” She seemed to realize what will remain important long after the final curtain on her last performance.  
Losing your ego? How about watching Steve Martin, Lin Manuel-Miranda, and Andrew Loyd-Weber play "Tomorrow" in a spontaneous band with other composers outside the theatre.
Amid the showtunes and glitz, the participants demonstrated a deep, fundamental humanity.
And that brings me to my last thought. In a different year, any of the nominated musicals might have been Tony winners. But these shows all happened to open the same season as an out-of-the-box, hip-hop retelling of an 826-page book about America’s first Treasury Secretary.
As the Hamilton tidal wave swept through the theater, winning well-deserved award after award, the other nominees grinned and clapped with genuine enthusiasm, even as they pushed their own carefully prepared speeches a little deeper into pockets or purses.
Life can be hard. Heaven knows theater can be. You work and practice, you dream and hope, then work some more—and someone else gets the part. You sing your heart out and still, you might not win the award this year. Or even next.
Of all the lessons my students grapple with, dealing with disappointment is among the most difficult. That’s why I hope they watched the Tony awards. Because if they did, they saw people being generous in victory and gracious in disappointment. They saw people sharing in one another’s joy even though life is unfair.
They saw big stars say, “I didn’t do this alone,” and rising stars say, “This is wonderful—but it’s not what’s most important.”
If my students learn these lessons, they have a shot at genuine happiness in adulthood even if their Broadway dreams don’t come true. Or even if they do.

Braden Bell, PhD, is an assistant middle school principal, youth theater director, author of middle-grade and YA fantasy fiction, and lifelong theater geek. He blogs intermittently about teaching adolescents. Follow him on Twitter @bradenbellcom or on Facebook: Braden Bell, Author

Author's note: I'd like to thank Mary Laura Philpott for her encouragement and energy. She gave generously of her time, support, and expertise while I worked on this piece. You can find her on Twitter at: ​@MaryLauraPh ​
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Published on June 17, 2016 05:24 • 4 views

June 9, 2016

​I have noticed a pattern over the years, and the more I think about it, the more it troubles me. I will freely admit that I have done this many times, and it came to my notice because I sat down the other day to do exactly the same thing. Whenever there is a high-profile terrible event--it doesn't really matter what, but we've had several recently--we say something like, "This was terrible BUT...." and then we insert our own two cents. Usually, we tie the tragedy to something we feel strongly about, and often, these statements at least imply anyone who disagrees is morally culpable for the tragedy. You get a template that looks roughly like this: "This tragedy was terrible, but it shows something I've thought for a long time. If only everyone would agree to [whatever we are saying] it would not happen again..." I will note up front ,that these response are very sincere, and delivered most often with the best of intentions. Or, someone is simply expressing an opinion. 

Soon, someone writes a blog about it, then people who are like-minded agree, share the blog and soon, those who disagree find a blog that states their opinion. "There is no excuse for [whatever the tragedy is] BUT..." and soon, these discussions are linked to larger social questions, and soon, they are simply more ammo in our ongoing collective arguments. 

It happens anytime there is a shooting, or a brutal crime. It happened with the gorilla shooting, and it's happening even as we speak with that truly tragic and shameful rape case.

Part of this is the way we work through things collectively, I suppose. But I'm not sure it's healthy or productive, and I've been thinking about the old idea of a moment of silence. I wonder if bringing some form of that to the digital era might be a good idea. Not as a rule, but simply as a matter of decorum and decency. 

I wonder if we might reclaim some bit of humanity if, for a day or two, we simply said, "This was terrible--period. Those poor people." and then reflect on how we might feel if we or our loved ones were in the same situation. Perhaps we even think about ways we could help the situation. The key being each one of us does that for him or herself--not generously offering prescriptions to fix everyone else. 

It's critical we have the freedom to express our opinions. We also need robust debate. Certainly we can learn from terrible tragedies. But I think the scale has tipped too far to one side. I don't think a bit more restraint--personally applied--would hurt us, individually or collectively. 

I wonder if seeing these tragedies simply through the eyes of those who are hurt and whose lives are devastated might help us soothe some of the divisions we have, and perhaps turn down the temperature a notch or two on the always-boiling cultural arguments we have. 

As it is, there is something a bit ghoulish and inhumane about the way we fall into the habit of using tragedies to advance (even sincerely) and focus on our own sincere point-of-view. I think it ends up dehumanizing us and slowly reinforcing our unfortunate human tendency to see others as objects, supporting characters in our own story.

Beyond the fact idea of simply being more humane, I wonder if this approach might actually bring about greater consensus and progress. It seems to me that when we focus on our core humanity and really understand each other, most differences are not as great as they seem, and arguments often resolve into some kind of shared consensus.
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Published on June 09, 2016 09:41 • 3 views

May 26, 2016

People who've followed my blog for a while know that one of pulpits I pound a lot is civility, understanding, and empathy. I am all for spirited public discourse. I believe a loud and crowded marketplace of ideas is the sign of a healthy republic. 

My biggest fear about our country's future comes in what I see is a fundamental and growing inability to understand each other. Not agree with each other, necessarily, but simply understand our ideological foes without deciding they are just stupid or evil. 

It worries me because in a country as big as this, with as many different voices and ideas, there has to be a way that we can make decisions. Historically, that has involved making some compromises. 

In our day-to-day lives, I suspect most of us do this. We make compromises with our spouse or children, our co-workers, or reality in general. We realize life is a series of trade-offs. And live goes on.

But in politics we suddenly become all-or-nothing. We write ourselves into a melodrama that stars our side as the forces of light and truth, battling the forces of evil and destruction. 

The problem with this is that it ruins the possibility of ever making any kind of compromise, of giving even mild concessions in order to achieve a shared goal. 

I believe we can solve our problems. But I don't believe either side is uniquely able to see the problems and propose solutions with clarity. So, the ability to listen and understand the other side--really listen, not just preparing a rebuttal--is critical.

Beyond that, we have to live together 365 days a year. Election day comes once. Should we really allow our politics to be the defining moment in terms of our relationships, or the way we think about vast number of others? Simply as human beings, should we not be able to listen to each other and say, "I see your point," or "I understand how you feel," without launching into "But your side does it too...." or "Well, yes but Reagan/Clinton did it too...." 

It might be comforting to hear the folks on Fox validate your bedrock beliefs about God, Family, and Country. It might be funny to hear Jon Stewart and Colbert and all the rest mock people you think deserve it. 

Certainly, there is a thrill one gets when looking at one's foes and thinking that they are stupid, illiterate, backward, or just evil. But that thrill that comes is a tingle of self-righteousness, nothing more. 

So, here's the Empathy Challenge: find someone you disagree with. Ask him or her to explain why your candidate scares them. Ask them the positive reasons they support their candidate. Listen with the intent to understand them, not to argue or rebut. Don't try to convert them. Just to understand. You don't have to agree. But you understand, and when you interact, you will not be objectifying that person. You'll be engaging with them--human to human. 

You don't have to agree. But you could at least stop seeing your fellows as caricatures or cliches, or objects of scorn, unworthy of the same rights you grant yourself. 

Try it. You might be surprised. Those Bernie supporters you mock might surprise you with a lack of entitlement. That person with the Trump sticker might not be a racist. And the person with the Hillary t-shirt might not be hoping for a corrupt oligarchy. 

In America, we have the right to vote our conscience. I would suggest that this comes with a responsibility to try to understand the consciences of others. 

If you are interested, I'd love to hear your experiences with this. 
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Published on May 26, 2016 06:42 • 10 views