"Mr. L? Can I talk to you for a minute?"
I looked up from my desk to see Elena, one of my most talented students at the door. Elena was small in stature but had a confident stride and personality. She was outspoken in class, but always respectful. At first, our senior government and economics class hadn't been sure how to respond to this small, impassioned Latina firecracker. With shoulder length brown hair and her calming brown eyes, you never would have pegged Elena as someone who would get fired up about politics. But she did, and it was thanks to her that my 7th period class, which should have been the bane of my existence seeing as it was at the end of the day, actually ended up being the most enjoyable forty-five minutes that I could ask for.
I smiled. "Sure, Elena. Come on in and grab a seat. Although class doesn't start for another three hours."
She fake laughed, something she had gotten good at over these past few months, and grabbed a seat in the front row facing my desk. "Ha. Ha. Very funny, Mr. L. I know I'm a bit early but I wanted to take some time to talk to you about the election."
I sighed. I knew this moment would come and I had been preparing myself for it all week. It was going to be a tough conversation to have, but one I knew that needed to happen.
"By all means. You ran a great campaign, Elena. It really was down to the wire. In all my time here at West High I can't remember seeing that many seniors actually take time out of their lunch period to come down and vote. It's a testament to how well you and Ernest were able to reach out to your peers and get them to care about their school."
Elena smiled. "Thanks, Mr. L. That was nice of you to say, it really was. I'm just having a hard time trying to interpret the result."
I frowned. "What do you mean?"
Elena sighed. "Well, it's like you said. People cared enough to vote, which is great. But they ended up voting for the wrong person for all the wrong reasons. Look, I like Ernest, I really do, but his campaign was built on a house of lies. You and I both know that he won't be able to accomplish everything he promised the senior class."
I held up my hand. "Now, Elena. I know you had some differences with Ernest and I think you did well to point those out during the debate."
She shook her head. "But the seniors still bought it! I mean, I really really thought that our class was smarter than that. They know that our school will never have a midday recess period, or free admission to all school dances, or the banning of homework. They knew this would never happen. And yet they still voted for Ernest, based on his platform. Now that he's been elected senior class president, nothing will get done because he doesn't have any actual realistic ideas for how our school can be improved."
I nodded. "Well, Elena, I can't say that I disagree with you. But you have to admit that Ernest tapped into something there. He found a way to get people excited to vote. Surely, you can at least respect that?"
Again she shook her head. "I honestly can't. It's more than just how he ran, it's why he ran. Ernest has been in class representatives for three-and-a-half years. He thinks that by saying "Second!" to any motion makes him an indispensable part of the organization. The only time he became actively involved outside of school was when he volunteered to help out at the senior citizen's dinner and the only reason he did that was so he could dress up as Buddy the Elf and wear his stupid Will Ferrell outfit. I honestly wouldn't be surprised if the only reason he even ran for class president was to add it to his college application."
I sighed. "Now, Elena. Let's not get nasty here. You and I don't know what motivated Ernest to get involved at this point of his high school career. He may very well have done it with good intentions."
Elena raised her eyebrows. "Good intentions? How is it good intentions to promise people something you know you can never get them? That's like a parent promising their kid that sure, Santa Claus will bring them a pony no matter what. How do you think the poor kid responds once there's no pony? That kid will lose faith in his parent from that point forward. That's exactly what Ernest did but rather to one single kid, he did it to the 350 kids in the senior class. And unlike that bad parent, Ernest won't have to live with the repercussions of what he did for the next decade or so."
I held my hand up. "Elena, I know you're upset..."
She slammed her hands against the desk. "Upset? Of course I'm upset! I wasn't running for class president on a bunch of pie-in-the-sky promises. I was running to actually help people. My platform was all about raising issues and awareness of the underlying problems in our school. Problems that affect everyone. These were things that I researched by talking to faculty and staff. Things that I then looked up in the student handbook to learn the exact policies. Things that I discussed with Principal Jackson to see if the administration would actually be able to address these issues if the senior class raised enough public awareness about them. These were things that I know would have helped the school!"
Elena sighed and leaned forward in her desk.
"I know what you're going to say, Mr. L. That Ernest won for a number of reasons not just his promises."
I remained silent.
Elena continued. "But the truth is both you and I know he won because of what he promised to do if elected president. Now, I know my campaign issues weren't the sexist ones around, but they were ones that were important to me and were important to this school: More vegetarian options at lunch, addition security for science chemicals, higher quality hairnets for the cafeteria staff, modern mops for the custodial staff, additional seating for our handicapped students during school assemblies. I get it. These are not issues that the majority of students think about on a daily basis. But these are issues that would incrementally make our school better. And isn't incremental progress to help those less fortunate what we should all strive to do each and every day in our lives?"
I smiled. "You'll get no argument from me on that one, Elena."
She looked up at the clock. "I don't know. It's...it's just with everything that happened, I really thought I could have made a real difference."
I leaned forward from my desk. "Elena? Look at me. You did make a difference. You raised some great issues, things that we should have been talking about for a while. Knowing you, I'm sure you'll work behind the scenes on some of these side projects, even if it might not be on Ernest's radar at this point. One characteristic of a great leader is how they respond to adversity and I have no doubt you'll handle the result of the election with nothing but dignity and grace."
Elena nodded and smiled. "Thanks, Mr. L. I appreciate that. It's just...it's just..."
I could began to see her tear up slightly. "Elena? What is it?"
She sniffled and wiped her eyes. "It's just...I wanted to win. Not only for myself but for others. I look around this school and I see one-third of our population being of Latino descent. This school has been serving the Latino community since it opened here in 1953. That's sixty-three years and thousands of Latino students who have come through these doors. Yet, in that whole time, not once has there been a Latino class president."
I smiled. "Elena..."
She continued. "I know, Mr. L. I don't have to carry my entire race on my back. But I want to do it. I want to put myself out there so I can open doors for people like my little sisters. This school has some great history, Mr. L but that history is limited to sports, music, and theater for us Latinos. I wanted to be president so that ten, twenty years from now some young, idealistic freshman can have a seat by the front office, look across at the trophy case, and see a picture of the 2016 class officers with the caption "Elena Chavez, senior class president" written in bold at the bottom of the picture. Doing that, opening that door, while at the same time fighting for people and issues that I care about, that's why I really wanted to be senior class president."
I looked at this courageous young girl who had just poured her heart out to me and I said the only thing I could say. "Elena. Never forget who you are or why you care. High school is not the real world. Don't be discouraged by one silly election where the wrong person won."
The bell rang, announcing that it was time for third period.
Elena got up and sighed. "Thanks for listening, Mr. L. I'm sorry I got so emotional there."
I smiled. "Never apologize for being you, Elena."
She turned to leave but at the door, she turned back to ask me one last question.
"So...out there in the real world? People aren't as easily fooled by false promises?"
I nodded. "I like to think that they're smarter than that."