The Political Education of Stephen Stahley

STEPHEN J. STAHLEY

November 03, 1992|By STEPHEN J. STAHLEY

It was the spring of 1968 and I was a junior in one of the enormous Catholic high schools of Philadelphia. Our class alone consisted of more than 900 boys. To my surprise, a few friends in my homeroom nominated me to run for senior class officer. To my utter amazement, I wound up on the list of eight candidates selected to deliver a speech to the class at a morning assembly.

The competition was stiff: two football stars, an honor student and four current members of the student council (career politicians). I had the least name recognition, was not a member of a high-profile athletic team (I ran track), and had never been elected to the student council.

Overt campaigning and posters were forbidden. The entire race came down to each candidate's five-minute speech on a stage in an immense auditorium filled with bored, sullen adolescents in a tightly controlled setting.

The experience was not a defining moment in my life. It did, however, provide me with lessons about the political process that have stood the test of time.

Lesson 1: Highbrow is deadly.

The theme of my speech was respect. My central point was that the leadership of the student council needed to earn and maintain the respect of the faculty in order to achieve results. My words elicited virtually no response from the electorate.

A portent of things to come occurred as I returned to my homeroom after the assembly. Father O'Hara, the homeroom moderator, told me that my speech was directed at the intellectuals and that I was going to lose because there were only 14 in the audience. It was going to be a long day waiting for the registrar's office to tally the results.

Lesson 2: Know your handlers.

It was only after I had been nominated to run for class officer that my English teacher, Mr. Reynolds, bothered to learn my name. I was offended by this only until he offered to be my speech coach. He taught me an elaborate signal system to be employed as I gave my speech. By watching him in the rear of the auditorium, I could monitor my volume and clarity over the microphone. My naked fear of public speaking made him indispensable.

On election day, as I began the speech, all seemed in order. My eyes were fixed on Mr. Reynolds. A step forward by him meant move closer to the mike. A step back was the signal to pull slightly away. Less than one minute into the speech, I saw him back completely out of the auditorium. A cold wave of dread filled my gut as I realized that I was flying without instruments. The fact that I finished the speech is still a matter of pride.

The next speaker was the candidate from the honors section. From my seat on stage I watched Mr. Reynolds reappear at the back of the auditorium. As I saw the signal system executed according to plan, I remembered that he also taught the honors English section.

Lesson 3: Focus on feelings.

Ronnie Owens spoke last. He delivered an oratorical masterpiece. He crafted a powerful metaphor likening the student body to a farmer, the faculty to a mule and the student council to a large club. The purpose of the student council was to be the club in the hand of the farmer to bring the mule into line. The image was clear and the language passionate. He finished by making outlandish promises: smoking in the cafeteria, fewer chaperones at school dances, female cheerleaders and a classy senior prom.

Ronnie provided our junior class with the only five minutes of emotional release within school hours during the entire year. It still ranks among the best political speeches I've ever heard.

Retrospective.

I lost, badly. Came in eighth. Didn't even carry my homeroom. Ronnie Owens won in a landslide. The other three offices went to the career student councilors.

The four officers fulfilled only one campaign promise (they wore white satin tuxedos to the senior prom), but the election results turned out well for the school. Unburdened by high elective office, the football players led the school to the city championship. The track team didn't do too badly either. The honors student, who beat me by only 10 votes, did a good job editing the yearbook.

My political career began and ended in the spring of '68. My political education, however, was second to none.

Stephen J. Stahley writes from Baltimore.

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