It was autumn 1968. The election cycle was in full swing and I was running for president.
Mrs. Wise, my 4th grade teacher, had certain rules for anyone who wanted the responsibility of serving as class president. This was no ordinary time in the Bronx and it called for visionary people. Now I was hardly the physical specimen of leadership, being the smallest and youngest child in the class. Yet, the opportunity was open to anyone, independent of personal traits. My opponents were formidable with one girl, Shirley Smart, being the most apt to do the job and prior experience as a class president and one boy, Edgar Eager, with a better campaign strategy. In many ways he had been running for class president since second grade.
There was one debate where each of us spoke when it was our turn. Interrupting other candidates was rude. Manners mattered. We focused on the issues and there were many. Security was high among the tasks at hand. Class president decided who was school hallway monitor during fire and air raid drills. The Cold War was on and it was extremely important to get under our desks if missiles were headed our way. Though it seemed that hallway monitor wasn't a critical role we could not foresee that in a few months a real fire would break out in the school and assigning this duty required a president who placed service above self.
I worried that my scrawny physique -- always being picked last for any sports team -- might not fair favorably in the campaign. But I was confident that my voting classmates recognized the difference between intellectual and physical prowess and this would not jeopardize my chances.
Understanding economic policy was critical. The class president had responsibilities during the bake sale. Revenues generated from this event contributed to class trips. Do we add a "tax" on pastries to subsidize holiday gifts? A sound financial understanding was important. I was anxious on this front. A few days before the election Mrs. Wise was teaching us about currency. She came to my desk with a closed hand containing two quarters, three dimes and a nickel and then opened it for all of two seconds. She closed it again and asked, "How much money did I just show you?" I got it wrong. I inflated the amount from 85 cents to 95 cents. She asked my classmates if they could tell me what I did wrong. It traumatized me and happened dangerously close to the election. It was an unforeseen event that my campaign manager / best friend could not have predicted. He said that it was a Friday and everyone would forget it by Monday. There was no CNN or Fox to replay this over and over again.
Foreign policy acumen was also essential. How do we work with other 4th grade classes? We were in the accelerated program and we must be respectful of others. Soft (intellectual) power was a better strategy most of the time but we also needed to know how to handle bullies. The class president must speak correctly and carry a big book bag.
If elected it would be my responsibility to create new jobs for students in my class. I originally had a plan! One job would be cleaning the chalkboard erasers. But the dust created might cause coughing requiring another job -- getting a cup of water from the hallway. This could lead to itchy eyes creating a third job -- escorting the allergic child to the nurse. Might need to rework the entire plan once in office, I thought!
A strong fund of knowledge of the issues was important. How do we determine the best holiday bulletin board display? Who among classmates should contribute to the yearbook? What should we name the class goldfish? Many things were more important then than they are now. Mister Roger's neighborhood was sacrosanct (Big Bird had not hatched yet). We all attended Assembly on Fridays, with boys in white shirt and tie and girls in a dress. I don't recall but I may not have worn the American flag on my lapel. There were other gaffes too. Edgar had forgotten some of the words to the Pledge of Allegiance one morning and shockingly Shirley could not name all of the original thirteen colonies during history lesson one afternoon.
Campaign finance reform was in full swing. Classroom budgets were limited. Rumors spread that the school principal overspent on a parade celebrating American history and our deficit mushroomed (note: I played Uncle Sam). It was decided by Mrs. Wise that everyone got ten pieces of construction paper to make their campaign posters. We were not restricted in the number of crayons to use but my campaign manager said to use just a few. I was very good at art but I went with his advice -- the simple approach. It was a strategic error. Too late to change my campaign manager and after all he was my friend. Does one jeopardize true friendships just to win an election?
As I recall, Election Day was unseasonably cold but I suspected that all my classmates would still make it to school. Everyone had to vote. No one would relinquish any constitutional rights. I recalled the grievances against King George of England that we had just learned about. On the morning of the election I calculated how many votes I could count on. Then again you never can be sure. Many promised they would vote for me but it was a secret ballot. I hadn't promised extra candy at Halloween to anyone nor had any of my opponents. At least that's what they told me. I didn't assure anyone a spot as first baseman during softball games or mimeograph duty with the smell of the ink that every child loved. None of these were positions that I was even entitled to give out. They were decided by other components of the school's governance.
As Mrs. Wise counted the votes, I waited anxiously as did Edgar Eager and Shirley Smart. But some of my classmates were either reading a book or making little rocket ships out of parts of a ballpoint pen. How could they not recognize the significance of what was happening in our Bronx classroom at that moment? My campaign manager sitting across the room gave me a reassuring nod of confidence. One of my classmates put the tally marks on the chalkboard. It looked close. But in the end I lost, coming in second to Edgar. Shirley took it with style and grace -- no request for a recount. In the tradition of America in the days of the Founding Fathers, I became vice president because I had the second highest votes. I congratulated Edgar and we decided to work together to make our class the best in the entire grade.
I sometimes wonder what happened to my two opponents. But it was my campaign manager who I think about the most. He believed in me. He was great at math and money. Wonder if I might find him near Wall Street with a box of his belongings. He might need a job and an old friend today.