catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 7, Num 13 :: 2008.06.27 — 2008.07.11


By popular election

Near the end of my junior year of high school, Julie Davis was the shoe-in candidate for Student Body President in the upcoming school elections. Julie already headed the school yearbook, the Honors Society, the cheerleading squad. She was pretty in an unfussy way, with straight honey-brown hair that shined, and somehow she avoided being snobbish. I’d known her since kindergarten and I admired her clear-headedness.

As elections neared, Julie assembled a slate of the most likely leadership candidates, including her friends Kris and Kirk—both young men were bright and funny, capable and entertaining.

And Julie asked me to be her candidate for Secretary of the Student Body.

I enjoyed my own corners of leadership in the school, as editor-in-chief of the newspaper and head of the Drama Club. Outside of school, I’d secured a summer internship with a professional theater troupe and I headed my church youth group. Though I had skills to offer, I was stuck with a question: these three high school students were popular and I was not. I had few friends in my small class, no dating life and most of my friends were underclassmen from my church. I was also wrestling through my parents’ very public divorce. I managed my studies, but I felt unpredictable to myself as well as others. Did she know what she was doing asking me to join the slate? Wasn’t I a liability? Julie assured me they all knew I could do the job well. I considered what it might be like to work alongside three socially capable people, fun people who intimidated me a little. I said yes.

A second slate of candidates emerged immediately prior to the election, most of them known for their recreational drug use and distaste for school rules. “The Opposition” seemed like a fun joke. They were great kids, likable. But not big on responsibility. They called us “The Straight Slate,” which made all four of us smile. Our fellow students would see and vote accordingly.

The voting ballot listed Julie’s slate—my slate—in the left-hand column, and the opposing slate in the right-hand column.

When the votes were tallied, Julie Davis won the election, hands down, as did Kris and Kirk. But more than half the 350 voters crossed the midline of the ballot to elect my opponent, after checking Julie, Kris and Kirk. The job as Secretary of the Student Body was won by a woman known for her sexual reputation—her student body, she joked—not her leadership skills. Had this woman held a leadership position before? Had she served the school in any way? I flushed red with the news, melting into hot tears, the tears renewed with each condolence offered in the school hallway.

I was not surprised by losing: this election merely confirmed my worst suspicions about my classmates and their judgment. Instead I was surprised by how much I’d hoped to win, hoped to rewrite the story of my life in high school, to stop being the ugly duckling, to stop being so intimidated by popular people. How could the results seem so unfair? What could be more fair than a popular vote?

I left for the summer and starred in plays in another town where I made uncountable friends. I returned for my senior year to direct high school plays and edit the newspaper and prepare for college.

Midway through my senior year, the elected Secretary of the Student Body dropped out of school. She’d done well as secretary, but she was having a baby, and she’d finish up another time. Julie approached me again. She’d gotten permission to offer me the post of Student Body Secretary without an election. I blushed and put my hand over my eyes and Julie gripped me by the shoulder. “You know what I should say,” I said, and she nodded. I started to laugh.

“I know what two words would be appropriate.”

“The last time I said yes to you, that was the most humiliating experience of my life,” I brushed tears from my eyes.

“I’d be honored to work with you. That never should’ve happened.” I nodded. I said yes.

The time with Julie, Kris and Kirk did not transform my social life—by my last months of school, it was too late for that. I got to know them a little. They were much like me, and their lives were no easier despite popularity and college-educated parents. I wished I’d put away my stereotypes of them earlier. I wished I could separate this job from my experience of the election. But I was already bound for the world beyond those 350 voters, a fact I repeated regularly. My conversations with Julie, comparing lives and dreams, really did make the whole experience worth my time and effort. We were equals. It was I who’d been keeping others at an arm’s distance. It was I who’d accepted my role as a loser.

Democracy is a strange beast. Elections give me an uneasy feeling and a strong sense that I will see the worst of my fellow human beings. I don’t know any better way to choose leaders. I wish I did.

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