Here & there: Of poison oak, school elections and John McCain…yes, they’re all connected

Composite image. Embarrassed girl by Hramovnick/iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

OPINION — While midterm primaries may have dominated the news in America this week, elementary school elections dominated the news in my house.

My sixth grader announced on Monday afternoon that he was running for student body vice president. Elections would take place that Wednesday morning. He had 18 hours to write a speech and to campaign.

And by campaign, I mean riding his bike to school early Wednesday morning to hand out small white slips of paper that read “Vote the Short One. Oscar for Vice Prez” and emailing a handful of classmates to tell them he would do a good job.

He planned to introduce the “short one” reference in his speech. He is one of the shortest kids in the sixth grade, and he wanted to show his peers that he can laugh at himself; self-deprecation, he said, is an admirable quality in a leader.

Later that night, after writing a clever speech parodying his power as an elementary school vice president and practicing it in every room of the house while his younger brother followed him around whispering in an attempt to “simulate distractions at school,” he confessed he was quite nervous.

I told him win or lose, his dad and I were proud of him for taking the risk, for putting himself up as a candidate. And we were proud of him for then putting effort behind the risk.

Whatever the outcome, there is never shame in trying.

It’s the same message my parents shared with me when I ran for office in junior high. I knew I could do a good job, but I was nervous to put myself out there in front of my peers. Especially when a major problem emerged the day before I was to give my speech: the entire left side of my face was covered in poison oak.

It’s bad enough to have anything out of the ordinary in visible places on your body as a teenager. I remember wearing a baseball hat for three days when a goose egg-sized blemish erupted on my forehead at age 15, with the brim pulled so low I had to tip my head back to see.

But when the western hemisphere of your face is oozing and swollen with poison oak you contracted from a dog on a weekend camping trip, it is downright torture to stand in front of an auditorium of your peers asking for their vote.

I did the only thing I could do (besides dropping out): I incorporated the unsightly rash into my speech and used the fact that I was standing prostrate in front of them with it as a sign of complete dedication to the job.

And, with a nudge from my mom, I did it in rap form to the tune of Will Smith’s “Parents Just Don’t Understand.”

It was a moment only Napoleon Dynamite could really understand.

In spite of the poison oak, or maybe because of it, I was elected sergeant-at-arms. My parents praised my efforts more than my victory.

For the next ten months, I dutifully raised and lowered the state flag each day and made daily announcements over the PA system. I attended student council meetings and helped plan school activities.

In the years since that junior high election, I’ve looked back on it with appreciation. Both for the dramatic election experience – I gave a speech in front of the whole school with a contagious rash on my face and didn’t die of embarrassment! – and the mundane duties of the office that followed. But that’s kind of the point of the public service, right?

It was an awkward process. I felt completely exposed. But it was important to take the risk for my growth as a person. Even if the outcome had been different.

The venerable Arizona Sen. John McCain died of brain cancer last weekend. He’s been called the American maverick, the last of the bi-partisan lawmakers and a true hero.

But to me, more than anything, he is a man who embodies what it means to take risks – to try.

He tried on the battlefields of Vietnam. He tried as a POW (it’s reported he yelled obscenities at the guards when they came to torture him in hopes it would give the other POWs a little moral boost). He tried running for Congress, seven times in total between the House and the Senate. And he tried running for president – twice.

He didn’t always succeed. But he always tried.

In a letter he left for posthumous reading, McCain talked about one of those defeats in pretty remarkable terms. He said, “Ten years ago, I had the privilege to concede defeat in the election for president.”

Although there were many other poignant messages in his last letter, this line struck me deeply. Not only did he put himself out there and was gracious in his victories, but he was also gracious in his defeats.  Now, that’s really being a maverick.

The last thing I told my boy before his big election night: Don’t worry, all you have to do is be like John McCain. Be willing to try, and be gracious no matter what.

Kat Dayton is a columnist for St. George News, any opinions given are her own and not representative of St. George News.

Email: katdayton@gmail.com | news@stgnews.com

Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2018, all rights reserved.

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