The following is a tale of high school redemption.
Every high school student is expected to choose a foreign language concentration. The ninth grader in me chose Spanish. He thought it the most utilitarian of the available options.
Being a Spanish student came with the perk of being associated with Spanish Club, clearly the best of our school’s language-based clubs. With us, it was all “Let’s go to Don Pablo’s for lunch and pretend to pay in pesos,” and “Let’s go eat some quesadillas.” Good times. And we were exceptionally popular.
Not that this was my only club. Not by a long shot. I was a collector, and an obsessive compulsive one at that. I needed to be a part of everything. And if I was going to do something, I might as well do it better than everyone else.
This sick drive propelled me into the editor’s chair of our high school’s Karux newspaper. I became the co-captain of the academic team, and for three years, was first chair French horn in the orchestra. (Note: I was the only French horn, but this was certainly a result of sheer intimidation.)
There was one afternoon when I walked into room 146 to watch my friend Brad’s new video and walked out the secretary of the newly formed AV Club. These sorts of placements became, in the words of my friend Kristina, “a running joke,” and earned me my second favorite nickname of all-time, “The Jack of All Trades.” 
So my desire to helm the Spanish Club should have come as no great surprise. I had been respectfully biding my time for three years, playing by the rules, and waiting for my turn to be an officer. A driving member. A leader. I had the highest G.P.A. in the school, leadership experience, and was generally well liked. It was in the bag.
The day of the elections The Slate (I only later bestowed this moniker upon the day’s four candidates) sauntered into SeÃ±or Metroke’s Spanish Club headquarters with a wide-eyed herd freshman cheerleaders in tow, a curious anomaly. They took their seats and SeÃ±or called upon all nominees for President.
I spoke first and gave the typical ra-ra high school club speech, the kind that ultimately says little, but passes the minimum requirement of being vaguely democratic. I hit my bullet points:
- long history with the group
- proven track record
- great ideas
- blah blah blah
Jen of The Slate rose to speak next. She didn’t really know what to say and began by engaging in some idle banter with one of her friends who had just uttered some sort of inaudible throwaway comment. The herd laughed…harder than they should have.
We can all recognize the instant our confidence begins to flag. It’s a subtle shift in the atmosphere, a recognition that you are not the focus of the public’s attention. Someone else around you is funnier, more relevant, more popular. It’s an unconscious reality until…
SeÃ±or had finished counting the ballots. He said, “Congratulations to Jen, the new President of the Spanish Club.” Cheers erupted from the peanut gallery.
I glanced around the room desperately in search of some kind of answer. None was offered by the paper mache donkey hanging next to the window nor by the puppet in the poncho with that little guitar always sitting atop SeÃ±or’s manila-colored filing cabinet.
The Spanish Club was a giant organization. Why were there so few people at these elections, I wondered. Where was everybody, the people who knew me, my supporters?
The fix had been in from the start. The popular girls had arranged it behind my back, probably with the blithe airiness afforded to those accustomed to always getting what they wanted. Who knows when they decided they wanted control of the club. Ten minutes ago in the bathroom was just as likely an answer as any.
One after the other they gained momentum, being voted into office over me by landslide margins. I protested to SeÃ±or Metroke, “SeÃ±or, these girls are brand new! They shouldn’t be granted voting rights! They’re making a mockery of the voting process.” SeÃ±or threw me his glance and reminded me of voting protocol. As long as the girls had attended at least one previous meeting, they were permitted to vote. And he had me. I had been done in by the allure of last week’s quesadillas.
By time the final office, Secretary, came up for debate, I had completely changed my tactics. Clearly, my record was not going to win these girls over. I rose to the podium once again and said, “Look, I understand what you’re feeling. You’re new to the high school and you probably think that you owe some kind of allegiance the other members of your squad, that you will be socially outcast if you don’t vote a certain way. I want you to know that’s absolutely not true. Three of them have already been voted into office, and a fourth won’t make any huge difference to you, but it will to me, and more importantly, it will to the rest of this team. I’ve been a committed member of this organization for three years, I know what makes it work well and I know what can be done to make it better. And right now, I’m asking you, in a confidential ballot, to cast just one vote for the alternative. I’m asking you sincerely to please do the right thing.”
I suppose it was too much to expect honor out of an extorted gaggle of freshman cheerleaders.
I stumbled out of headquarters like a shell shocked soldier slowing trying to regain his bearings. How could I have been so careless as to not see this coming? I had arrogantly assumed all members would tow the line I’d laid out in my head. I had been bum rushed by pomposity and pom poms.
My mind reeled, searching for an answer to this unexpected rebuke. I had lost an office”¦
But hold! I had remembered that on the other end of the building, Frau Johnson’s German Club was also holding their annual elections. If only I could coerce their membership to appoint me to an elected office, equilibrium would be restored and I could have my revenge!
But first I had to contend with my biggest weakness as a potential candidate – I had never been to a German Club meeting before. Worse, I didn’t even know a single German word! I had decided on the short walk over to the east wing of Phillipsburg High School that if I was going to win my new election, it wasn’t going to be on the merits, which apparently mattered for jack squat in this school anyway. I was going to succeed by figuring out where German Club was emotionally vulnerable and exploiting their insecurities. I quickly devised a plan where a total outsider could be accepted as the ultimate insider provided he played he cards right.
I sneaked into the back of the room and observed Frau Johnson, the club adviser, finishing up the VP debates. Frau’s room was nothing like SeÃ±or’s explosion of color and queso. Where SeÃ±or had placed a red, yellow, and orange calendar with the days of the week written in Spanish, Frau had placed a conjugation table of black words on a gray background. I hesitated for a moment, but pressed onward.
“Joe,” I whispered to Joe Overland, one of the school’s most prominent German language students. “How do you say ‘hello’ in German?” He replied, “Guten tag.” I gave him a head nod in thanks and approached Frau Johnson.
“Guten tag, Frau J. I’d like to run for the next available office.”
She shot me a look that would have killed a parakeet. “I’m not letting you run,” she said.
I replied, “There’s nothing that says I can’t run. If I’m truly unqualified, no one will vote for me.”
Frau Johnson had every reason to be concerned. She already knew what tricks I was capable of. Only a week or so earlier I had earned the presidency of the other group she advised, the PHS Forensics Team, by issuing some over-the-top proclamation about how I possessed the “power of historic postage stamps.”
Reluctantly, she resumed Robert’s Rules of Order and called me the floor to make my case. Before I began to speak I realized that one of my first acts in office was going to have to be modifying the team’s constitution so that only members can run for office. Because seriously, what I was about to do was simply ridiculous.
“Hey, everyone. I’m Mike. Some of you know me, but the rest of you are probably wondering who I am and why I’m here. I’m here to spin some truth. I’m here to say the things you need to hear. I am your voice of the voiceless.
“Spanish Club is better than German Club,” I stated unapologetically.
Frau’s face betrayed the fact that she was so not amused. I wondered how far I would be able to push this before she pulled the plug on me.
I continued, “You all know this is true, and if you don’t, wake up! Why is it that they have three times as many members as we do?” I had decided we were a “we” now.
“Granted, they have a lot of quesadillas and the occasional screening of El Cid, but that’s not the only reason they’re successful. I have been a member of that club for three years. I know what makes them tick and I know why new members come streaming in the doors every year. And I know what they say about you guys and the French Club.”
I took special care to add a snickering tone of sarcasm to the world “French.” Regardless of how this German/Spanish battle played out, at least we could all agree that the French Club was populated by a bunch of losers.
“Newsflash – just a few minutes ago on the other side of the building the Spanish Club elected Jen and her clique to office.”
Muffled murmurs spread throughout the room. The German Club was not the hangout of the popular kids. My whiff of social class warfare had stoked their interest, I could see.
“That electionwill be their undoing, if we play our cards right. Spanish Club has always succeeded because of strong capable leadership, leadership that it now lacks. This puts their top-of-the-hill status in jeopardy, but heed my words well. Victory over them is far from assured. They still have strong institutional advantages. SeÃ±or Metroke has a quesadilla maker in his closet at all times.”
A pair of occasional turncoats in the audience nodded in agreement.
Then things began to get real. “Have I taken German before? No. Have I been to many of your meetings before? No. There’s no point in denying the facts.”
“But you don’t need me for my ‘guten tags’ and my ‘weinerschnitzel’. You need me because I’ve cracked the code. I know Spanish Club’s strengths and weakness inside and out and I promise you here today that if elected, I will do everything in my power to ensure that German Club becomes unequivocally the best language club this school has ever seen. We’ve sat in the back of the bus long enough. This is our moment. Let’s claim it together.”
They gave me a standing ovation. Frau was clenching her teeth with such force that her temples were bulging. She relaxed her jaw just enough to ask, “Are there any other nominees for Treasurer?” No one stood up.
And such is politics. I never explained word one about the “code” or the “formula,” but it didn’t matter. I had just become the least qualified German Club Treasurer in Phillipsburg High School history.
I never did return to the Spanish Club, not that they missed me, I’m sure. But I do like to think that my transition made some positive difference, regardless of my initial motives. Our membership grew by about 50% that year and we even converted some Spanish Club regulars through my “German Chocolate Cake Initiative.”
When our clubs battled head-to-head for scariest themed room during PHS’s annual Haunted Halloween, I took the competition very seriously, crafting a complex psychological narrative which melded classic German folklore with contemporary cultural themes. As I narrated my tale to parents and children, Frau yelled, “Mike, you’re holding everybody up! People can’t get into the room. Forget your story.”
Reluctantly, I let my audience disperse. I hadn’t gotten what I wanted, but I thought that if history was any indication, things would turn out just fine regardless.
 My favorite nickname of all-time was bestowed upon me by Juror #9 after our verdict had been delivered in a Baltimore City assault trial. My reenactment of the crime based upon the available evidence earned me the nickname, “The Scenario.”