I didn’t really want to win. Well, I did, but not for the title or the attention. I wanted to win because if I didn’t, Owen—our valedictorian (smart, athletic and pious; adored by everyone at our pre-K through 8th grade world of St. Anastasia’s)—could not only be counted on to run for student council president, he would undoubtedly win.
Owen and I ran track together and through the races and relays, our friendship—and rivalry—had been formed. I could never beat his fastest time, exceed his long jump, or challenge his shotput distance. Along with everyone else, I looked up to Owen in awe and envy. But I had decided that if I couldn’t pass him in a foot race, I would beat him in the presidential race. Why? I don’t know. I had always pretended I was too cool to care about anything. I had never enjoyed speaking up in class. I had never offered to read a petition or psalm when preparing for Wednesday masses. And yet here I was in the auditorium, speech in hand, standing in front of the entire school, about to make my best attempt at convincing my fellow classmates to elect me for junior high student council president.
I had labored over my speech for hours. I practiced it first in front of the mirror to fortify my molehill of confidence. When I began to see a fearless face reflected back at me, I took my speech to my most critical editor, my father, and together we adjusted my awkward, shrunken posture and uncovered some hidden charisma. He taught me to cover up the nervous quiver in my voice with the booming undertone of certainty and conviction. I then practiced my delivery with my neighbors and friends until I could make eye contact with them as I spoke.
I entered the auditorium early that day and sat on the wooden stage, staring at the dais positioned up-center. I had to keep my hands between my thighs to control their manic trembling. My parched tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth. The air in the empty gym weighed heavily over my shoulders and eventually, I stood up and started to pace to release some of the pressure. Soon my fellow running mates filed in: Abbey, running for secretary, Cody for treasurer, Michael and Mattie, vying for VP, and Raul, the third candidate for president. Brendan hadn’t shown up yet, but I wasn’t fazed—I assumed that he had probably missed the bus and was hitching a ride from his mom. He would be here soon enough. In the meantime, I continued to pace the gym.
When the bell rang, I sped back to my chair and watched as the kids started filing in. My sister, a fourth grader, sat in the front row and waved at me with a beaming smile on her face. Having rehearsed it with me, she knew my speech well and had more confidence than I did in its potential.
The principal quickly greeted the class and introduced the six of us on the stage. I stared at the empty seat next to me, unable to bring myself to look at my peers and teachers. Where is he?
My speech was first. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and stood up.
I cleared my throat in front of the dais, opened my eyes, and looked beyond the bored faces of the children, setting my gaze upon the much less-threatening wall behind them. As rehearsed, I loudly tapped my many sheets of paper on the wood, partly to get everyone’s attention and partly to cover up the noise of my kneecaps banging against each other. After stumbling on the first few sentences on the top sheet, I began:
“Do you really want to hear this right now?” I asked the audience.
My sister, prepped for this moment, shouted “NO!” The upperclassman all around giggled at her honesty.
“Okay, then,” I said, and then I shrugged, tossed my speech over my shoulder, and flashed my rehearsed grin.
Before me, the crowd screamed and applauded in surprise. Then, as planned, I put my elbows on the podium,and leaned into the crowd to signal that I was one of them. I. too, sat in the same chairs, walked the same halls, took the same classes, sat at the same lunch tables, and ran across the same playgrounds. I told my peers how much I really wanted to represent them and cared about their concerns—even though I really didn’t. I used extravagant hand gestures and cracked a few jokes.
“I have just one task for you,” I finally said before embarking on my final tactic. I had improvised a scheme of such vanity that even now I cringe when I think about it.
“I know the principal introduced me earlier,” I declared, “but I would like to formerly introduce myself.” Then, without any hesitation, I said, “My name is Cora. Can you say that for me?”
The fourth graders, urged by my sister, screamed, “Cora!”
“That was good, but I don’t think that was everybody. I wanna wake up the pre-K kids sleeping down stairs. Everyone: What is my name?”
“CORA!” boomed the kids.
“What’s my name?!?”
“COORRRRAAA!!” the faculty chimed in.
“And who are you going to vote for student council president?”
I bowed and took my seat. My audience, now completely fired up, continued cheering. In the back row, one boy rose to his feet and applauded. I caught his eye and instantly felt the blood pool in my feet. It was Owen—my rival—he was among the crowd, merely a spectator in the electoral race.
Owen didn’t run?!
The hysteria became too much; the room swirled…Owen’s bright-eyed, happy-go-lucky smile was the last thing I saw before I passed out.
I woke up in the nurse’s office as the new 2007-2008 junior high student council president of St. Anastasia’s. I learned from friends that my rival had had a change of heart the night prior when he couldn’t come up with a speech. All my hard work had paid off. Sort of.
After my election, I ran bake sales, voiced concerns to the teachers and staff, and tried to excite the spirit of the student body. We raised funds for new science equipment and purchased board games for the elementary school. I gained leadership skills, conquered my fear of public speaking, became my parents’ wonder kid for the first time, and won the respect from my classmates and the faculty. Yet I couldn’t feel passion for my duties as student body president. I had matured in only a matter of months, but the original impetus was to beat Owen—and he had never entered the race.
I had faced my fears, true enough. But I could never forget that I ran for president, not for the good of the students or the school, but to quell my own jealousy of someone I could not, under any circumstances, outrun.