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On government

When I was a sophomore in high school, a friend went on exchange to Finland, and I was like, huh, that might be fun. My mom encouraged me to apply, which is weird because she would flip out if I asked to go the next town over to go to a movie. Her boss was on the exchange committee of the organization that sends the students abroad, and his advice to me, through her, was to “know about the government.” Well, I thought, I know about the government, I think; I listen to NPR and read the paper and I’m passing my government class. But I guess I better study?

So I got down the little volume that contained the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights from the bookshelf in the living room, and I read it.

In retrospect it’s unclear why I was worried, coming from a house with that book on a shelf in the living room.

I went to the interview with the three or four members of the student exchange committee, and I think it was the first interview of my life; I hadn’t had a job yet. I was nervous. Social anxiety, and all that. I dressed up. I shook and sweated. I answered questions about my favorite subjects in school, and why I wanted to go abroad, or whatever. I think I was fourteen. Then they said, “If you were in another country, and someone asked you how the US government works, what would you say?” I was terrified. I said, “Well, there are three branches: the legislative, the executive, and the judicial …”

They looked at each other meaningfully, which confused me, as I couldn’t tell if it was a bad look or a good one. They wrote some notes on their papers. There was some small talk and then I was released. I figured I had answered wrong since I hadn’t even been allowed to explain what the branches were — I didn’t even mention the two houses of Congress! I think now that no one else had even mentioned the three branches? I guess.

In any case, I spent the next year in Belgium, which was fantastic, and changed my life.

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