All I ever wanted to do was teach. I never had to struggle like other people with the question of what to do with my life. My only dream was to sit on the edge of my desk in front of a room full of curious kids and talk about the world.
took place in the spring of 1992, when Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill were still fresh in everyone's mind, and Gennifer Flowers was the momentary star of tabloids and talk shows. All year long my junior Current Events class returned again and again to a single theme, what the media liked to call "the Character Issue": How are private virtue and public responsibility intertwined? Can you be an adulterer and a good President? A sexual pervert and an effective, impartial member of the judiciary?
than my students. Like most American adolescents, the kids at Winwood High didn't pay too much attention to the Supreme Court or the race for the White House. Their concerns were narrower--school, sports, sex, the unforgiving politics of the hallway and locker room.
students were fascinated by this sad and sordid story, and it became the nexus where their concerns linked up with those of the larger democracy. The case had not yet gone to trial at that point, but the kids at Winwood knew the details inside and out. A group of high school athletes--the golden boys of Glen Ridge--had been charged with luring a retarded girl into a basement, forcing her to commit a variety of sexual acts, and then penetrating her vagina with a broomstick and a baseball bat. None of the defendants denied the event had occurred. Their defense was that the girl had consented.
we had football heroes, too; the gap between them was immense, almost medieval. It wasn't too hard to imagine how a lonely, mildly retarded girl might consider it a privilege of sorts to be molested and applauded by the jock royalty of her little world. They were the ones with the power of conferring recognition and acceptance. If they saw you, you existed.
were only separated by a couple of exits on the Parkway--it didn't really surprise me that the overwhelming majority of my class, girls included, sided with the defendants and their right to a good time. If a girl, even a retarded girl, was dumb enough to join a troop of red-blooded boys in a basement, then who could blame the boys for taking advantage of this windfall?
them convicted and sent to prison, where they could find out for themselves what it meant to be scared and weak and lonely--but I kept it to myself in the classroom, opting instead for the more neutral roles of moderator and devil's advocate.
"So don't the strong have a responsibility not to hurt or humiliate the weak?"
exactly the kind of kid I was trying to reach, a smart, unhappy girl who wanted nothing more than to be accepted by the jock/cheerleader aristocracy at Winwood and had no idea--how could she?--of how relieved she was going to be to find a different world in college, more charitable standards of value.
nature of the world, "that's not how it works. The strong take what they want."
tell me?" I pointed at Dino Mikulski, the steroid monster in our midst, a 285-pound brick of zits and muscle who already had major college football coaches drooling over their playbooks. "If you're correct in your analysis, then I move that Dino be declared President of the United States. I have no doubt that he could take George Bush in a fair fight and therefore deserves to be our leader."
Dino and his lackeys exchanged high fives, celebrating his sudden ascension to the leadership of the Free World. I was pleased to see Paul Warren's hand shoot up.
silencing the room with the force of his judgment. "That girl didn't deserve what they did to her."
There, that's where it all started, I guess I'd choose that moment.
It was like I'd just opened my eyes after a sixteen-year nap and was wide awake for the first time in my life, seeing things for what they were. I'd check out the news, and where it just used to be a blur of names and faces, now it was like, "Holy shit, people are killing each other. Little kids are starving to death."
teacher, slouching in front of the blackboard, droning on about nothing for the whole period, the boredom thickening until it came to seem like a climate, the weather we lived in until the bell rang. He had a way of explaining complicated things so they made sense to you, connecting current events with familiar details from our own lives, asking questions that really made you think.
know I have. It's no big deal. People figure you're sick, or maybe you drank too much. But when George Bush loses his lunch in Japan, it's a national crisis. Now why do you think that is? What makes his vomit so different from yours or mine?"
between my parents that snapped me out of my daze. There's nothing like your mom kicking your dad out of the house to make you play back the tape of your existence and see it all in a whole new light.
Mom wasn't crying over those stupid TV movies. Our life was a soap opera, not a sitcom. And that whole time, with the clock ticking and our house waiting to explode, I was living in a dream world, grunting in the basement with Van Halen blasting, trying to bench two-fifteen, or hiding in my room with the Victoria's Secret catalogue, studying those pictures the way I should have been studying math. (Can somebody tell me why those women don't have nipples? It kind of drives me crazy.) My sister thinks I'm a moron for not catching on sooner. She and Mom are pretty tight; they knew about Dad and Sarah Stiller months before the news trickled down to me.
After football season, I took the PSATs along with everybody else in my class who wanted to go to college, and thought I did okay. But then the envelope arrives and it turns out that I got the third-highest score in all of Winwood High. At first I thought it must be some kind of computer error. I was just a B student, coasting through school with a minimum of pain and effort. For as long as I could remember, people had been saying that Tammy was the smart one in the family.
they changed everything for me. I started thinking that maybe I could get into a decent college; maybe I could even make it through law school. Maybe I don't have to be a card-carrying corporate drone like Dad after all, another ant in the ant farm.
did, especially not on my behalf. But I'm also eternally grateful to him for recognizing the change in me and encouraging me to act on it. The day he asked me to run for President was one of the proudest in my life.
Paul was the perfect candidate--varsity fullback, National Merit semifinalist, a good-looking, genuinely nice kid without an ounce of arrogance or calculation. He was smart, but unlike his sister Tammy, he didn't wear his IQ on his sleeve. In fact, if you didn't know him well, you could have easily drawn the conclusion that he wasn't the swiftest guy in the world, with that pumped-up body of his and those utterly vacant blue eyes.
that. As faculty advisor to the Student Government Association, no one knew better than me that the post of President was entirely ceremonial. All you presided over were a handful of meetings and a couple of bake sales.
admissions people at the selective schools are going to notice the gap between your grades and your board scores. The only thing that's going to convince them to take a chance on you is the right mix of extracurriculars. Varsity sports look great on your application, but nothing beats President of your school. They really eat that up."
him--and lapsed into his mild stammer.
popular than she is."
All right, so I slept with my English teacher and ruined his marriage. Crucify me. Send me to bad girl prison with Amy Fisher and make TV movies about my pathetic life.
have explained to him that my punishment for sleeping with Jack was having to sleep with Jack. It pretty much cured me of the older-man fantasy, let me tell you that.)
unopposed. People understood that I deserved to win. They didn't necessarily like me, but they respected my qualifications: President of the Junior Class, Treasurer of the SGA, Assistant Editor of The Watchdog, statistician for the basketball team, and star of last year's musical (Oklahoma!, in case you're wondering). And I did all of it while conducting a fairly torrid affair with a married man, even if he did turn out to be as big a baby as any sixteen-year-old.
what I hope will be a brilliant career at Georgetown University, I'm going to get dressed up in high heels and a short skirt and head down to that Chevy dealership on the Boulevard. I'm going to ask for Mr. M. by name and make him show me all the shiny cars, the Camaros, Berettas, and Corvettes.
again about the antilock brakes."
You only need a hundred signatures to put yourself on the ballot. I'd accumulated eighty-something my first half hour in the cafeteria when Tracy came charging up to my table in those amazing black jeans.
something about her gets me all flustered. It's pretty simple, really: she's got this ass. Just ask any guy at Winwood. Conversations stop every time she walks down the hall. She wore these cut-offs last spring that people still talk about.
expect me to believe that you just woke up this morning and decided to run for President?"
I felt like I'd turned into a pane of glass.
my hand and signing the petition.
said, dotting the i in her last name with her trademark star, "and if you think you can just jump in at the last minute and take it away from me, you're sorely mistaken."
scared, but the message I got was exactly the opposite. For the first time, I actually believed I might be able to win.
fingers, "I guess we'll just have to let the voters decide."
The election follows an orderly, three-phase schedule. March is petition month. Any student can become a candidate simply by submitting a petition with the required number of signatures. The Candidate Assembly on the first Tuesday in April marks the official beginning of the race. The next two weeks are devoted to the campaign. The hallways and bulletin boards are plastered with signs and posters. Candidates greet their fellow students at the main door, passing out leaflets, shaking hands. The Watchdog publishes a special election issue. It's democracy in miniature, a great educational tool.
involved in Paul's candidacy. I don't think I admitted to myself how badly I wanted to see Tracy lose.
nakedest ambition I'd ever come in contact with. She smoldered with it, and I'd be a liar if I said I didn't find her fascinating and a little bit dangerous, especially after what I'd heard about her from Jack Dexter. She was a steamroller, and I guess I wanted to slow her down before she flattened the whole school.
simple: Paul Warren would make a terrific President. The office would be good for him, and he would be good for the school. And besides, he had as much right to run as Tracy did. Winwood High School was a democracy. The winner would be determined by popular vote, not my personal preference.
we would have a clear-cut, two-way race between Paul and Tracy, a race I had no doubt my candidate could win. So you can imagine my annoyance on March 29th when I walked into the cafeteria and saw Paul's little sister, a scrawny, morose-looking girl, standing behind a petition table, holding up a homemade sign.