“If you elect me, you can bring your cell phones to class.”
With that, the crowd erupted and I witnessed the power of political temptation in our student government elections. David, a quiet student from Guinea, was delivering his speech to be an Eleventh Grade Senator.
Why did David’s promise get such a big reaction? Because the administration collects students’ phones to minimize distraction.*
To prevent impossible promises and ensure a smooth delivery, each student had previously rehearsed their speech with our Assistant Principal Shira Wrightman.
After David’s claim, Shira masterfully stepped up and clarified: “While David is a wonderful candidate, the student government does not control whether you get to bring your phones to class. Also, that line was not in the draft of the speech he presented earlier today.” A few surreptitious “boos” popped up, but the crowd calmed down and speeches continued.
David had seized his moment. Like a true politician, he knew what speech to have approved by the administration and what speech to deliver to his constituents.
Similarly, tenth grader Madeline made a last-minute revision to her speech. Madeline is originally from the Dominican Republic, as are approximately 50% of the students in our school, making them the majority. Madeline is unusual in her commitment to multiculturalism, having purposefully formed strong relationships with students from cultures other than her own.
Yet, standing in front of 90 classmates, she added a phrase that wasn’t in her original speech: “As the only Dominican student running for 10th grade Senator…” and again, the half-Dominican crowd erupted into cheers.
David and Madeline both used their political capital strategically to try to get elected.
Then there are those who can engage an audience and be true to themselves. Nasir, a 12th grader running for president, is originally from Bangladesh.
Wearing a suit, he stepped up to the podium, extended his hands, and shouted, “Hola! Buenos Dias!” He continued with a series of greetings in other languages, said that his goal was to achieve a 90% graduation rate, and gave a comprehensive presidential plan that included how he would help every culture celebrate their country’s important holidays.
In the end, Madeline and Nasir both got elected. David didn’t, but he’ll still have a role as 11th grade representative, just not as senator.
I’m convinced all of the students wanted to be on student government to be of service to their classmates, and all of them are going to do a great job. The less experienced had gone for the easiest, and therefore most tempting, route to get elected. Nasir, the more experienced, had learned how to speak to everyone and think of their best interests, making him not just a politician but a leader.
*Our school is one of five schools in the Christopher Columbus Campus. Phones were not allowed into New York City public schools until 2015 when Mayor Bill DeBlasio lifted the cell phone ban. Schools and campuses were given a variety of options from letting students enter with phones, to collecting the phones and re-distributing them, as our campus elected to do. Our campus is a scanning building, meaning that students enter through metal detectors. The metal detectors are there mainly for safety, but they detect cell phones, making it easy to have students hand them over. We decided that keeping students away from their phones would minimize student-teacher confrontations, and lessen distractions to learning.
All the names of students have been changed.
Photo credit: Julie Nariman