I was 16 when George McGovern ran for president. I grew up outside of Washington, DC, and my father and I had gone to all the big anti-war protests on the mall. So naturally, I was gung-ho McGovern, and I signed up to canvass for him, and set up a Students for McGovern chapter in my high school.
I was the kind of kid who never went home right after school. I hung out with the debate team and the model UN kids and sometimes the drama club and the band kids — in other words, the dorks. One afternoon, shortly after I’d put up Students for McGovern posters all over the school, I was hanging out when I saw the president of the student body walking down the hallway with all my posters under his arm.
“Against school policy to have posters endorsing a candidate.” He seemed quite pleased with himself.
“What happened to the First Amendment?” I countered.
He deflected blame to Mr. Ladson, the principal. Apparently the First Amendment took a back seat to the dictums of Mr. Ladson. This was, after all, high school.
I went home, called my dad at work and asked him what I should do. He suggested I called Audrey Moore, a “good Democrat” who happened to serve on the Board of Supervisors, and to live up the street from us as well. So I looked up Audrey Moore’s number in my neighborhood directory and told her my story.
The next day, I’m sitting in class when a pink slip arrived, summoning me to the principal’s office.
I had already acquired a world view in which high school administrators — and Mr. Ladson in particular — were obstructions to be surmounted. This was, after all, just after the 1960’s. I was a peace protestor. I’d started the ecology club and an underground newspaper, and Mr. Ladson was the kind of guy who quoted Vince Lombardi daily on the loudspeaker. And of course, it was on his orders that the president of the student body had taken down all my posters.
I’m sure I was braced for a fight. What I wasn’t ready for was an utterly contrite Mr. Ladson, who told me he’d gotten a call from the superintendent of schools, who’d gotten a call from Audrey Moore.
“You know, Debbie,” he said. “If you have a problem, you don’t have to go all the way to the Board of Supervisors. You really should feel free to come in my office and talk to me directly.”
At that point, the school’s fire alarm sounded.
I looked at Mr. Ladson, wondering if that was the point at which our little tete-a-tete was going to end. I may have been a high school radical, but that hadn’t made me immune from reflexive conditioning. This was, after all, my 12th year in the public schools. A fire alarm sounds, you stand up, get into a line, exit the building slowly.
But Mr. Ladson didn’t move. He was still busy apologizing, and trying to make sure I didn’t get him into hot water again. The alarm continued to sound, and outside his window, in front of the school, I saw all the students lined up in the bright fall morning. I’d never seen a fire drill from inside the building. Didn’t even know this was possible. And certainly could not have imagined a scenario in which I was inside, missing the fire drill, in the principal’s office, and where he was the one who had gotten in trouble.
Never mind that McGovern went on to lose the election in a historic defeat, or that all I’d really done was call a neighbor at the suggestion of my father. Never mind any of that. It was my first taste of power, and it was delicious.