CAPE ELIZABETH — I learned many lessons growing up about how to behave. These lessons can be attributed to parents, teachers and other influential adults – not mention a variety of cartoon animals whose sole purpose was preaching values to unsuspecting children.

Regardless of the source, though, I have held on to these lessons. I was taught not to lie and not to cheat. I was taught not to hide the crusts of my peanut butter sandwich under the couch cushions. I was taught to be respectful of others and to think before I spoke. I was taught to shake hands and look people in the eye and to keep my mouth shut if I couldn’t formulate anything pleasant to say.

As I sit now, in the infancy of my third decade of life, these lessons have held stronger than any multiplication tables or state capitals. These are the lessons that I still apply every day, the ones that have allowed me to gracefully move through the world to where I am today.

In first grade, we held a schoolwide mock election mirroring the presidential election taking place that year. I came in late, after my classmates had already cast their ballots, and was quickly rushed to the front office to fill out my own before we were to file into the cafeteria for lunch.

I remember standing in the miniature voting booth, all strung up with red, white and blue banners and American flags, and staring down at my ballot for a long time. I stared down at the paper for so long, in fact, that eventually the office secretary peered over the curtain to make sure I was all right.

“I’m just not sure,” I remember saying. She took the pencil from my hand and said, “Look, just pick this one,” as she pointed to the first name. “Or this one,” moving the pencil down to the other. “Or write in your own. It’s not that difficult.”

All of a sudden, that elementary student-sized voting booth felt even smaller. The secretary stood impatiently, the privacy curtain now flung open so as to leave me feeling rather exposed, my pencil still in her hand.

I wasn’t showing any inclination toward making a choice anytime soon. “How about this one?” she said finally, using my pencil to mark the seemingly more popular candidate. Before I could answer, she had already placed the ballot in the hands of the older student vote collector and ushered me out of the office.

I suppose I had felt the weight of that decision before it really mattered. I had been rushed in, offered a choice and then told who to pick by someone supposedly older and wiser.

Like many of my peers, this year marks the first presidential election in which I am eligible to vote. This is the year we have talked about and counted down to since those first-grade mock elections. This is our first chance to have an impact on the process that we’ve been watching our parents participate in our entire lives. It is so easy to think that we don’t make a difference.

This election season I have watched, with the rest of the world, as grown adults violate all of the rules about life I have been taught for as long as I can remember. I have looked at the screen incredulously as I see a lifetime of values and nursery rhymes about loving everyone thrown out the window.

These are the people who are supposed to be guiding our country, the people we are supposed to look to as symbols of strength and righteousness, and the people we are trusting to teach the next generations the same principles we have been taught.

A big part of growing up is realizing that adults are not the superheroes our childhood imaginations made them out to be, but this year I find myself watching with knots of panic deep in my stomach. What is our country going to be like if it is led by someone who can’t act within the confines of acceptable behavior for even the youngest members of society? What does it say about us as a nation for letting it get this far?

Someday I am going to tell my own children about the first presidential election I could vote in. I will be explaining this at the same time I am trying to instill in them the same lessons that were instilled in me. I will be trying to teach them about kindness and love as I remember the way that the nation gathered around televisions and computer screens to watch as our prospective leaders tore into each other like freshly killed prey.

While I know the decision that I am going to make on Election Day, it doesn’t make me feel any more confident in the country I call home. The choice that I am making isn’t between two fair-minded individuals. It isn’t between two role models who are using their opportunity in the spotlight to touch on the issues that could make a difference for the nation. It is between people who can’t seem to understand the lessons we are taught at 5 years old.

I will vote and continue to call the United States of America my home, but the disenchantment of watching the election season unfold won’t soon leave me. As I mark my very first presidential ballot, and begin a lifetime of participation in the democratic process, I do so with a heart full of sadness for the lessons that I have been forced to learn.