Five Elections, Five Losses—and an invaluable lesson learned

Jeff Pearlman (far left) was a member for the Chieftain newspaper staff—an unelected position.

A couple of weeks ago a friend contacted me via Facebook about her goddaughter.

The girl is in high school, and recently lost a student government election. Upon learning of the results, she was crushed. She wasn’t running for vanity or popularity, but to make a difference in her school. The victor, on the other hand, was just some goober who liked to party. Or something like that.

My friend—a former Mahopac classmate—came to the right place.

When I was in Mahopac Junior High School and High School, I ran for student class government five out of six years—and never won. Literally, I conducted five campaigns, hung up myriad posters, shook hands and made promises and begged for support … and came up 100-percent empty.

The first election was held in seventh grade. I ran against Jerry Testler—a popular kid with a funny sense of humor—for student class president. My whole platform was based upon the idea that we needed a third lunch line in the cafeteria. It was, I believed, gold. Kids hated waiting, and the extra line would solve everything. Money, right?

I lost, if memory serves, by about 300-to-30.

In four of the ensuing five years I ran for different positions, and each time I got thumped. I have no idea, looking back, why I kept running. I probably enjoyed the attention and the buzz and the excitement of it all; the hope that maybe, just maybe, I’d find a way to win. It became some sort of sadistic ritual, and every September I spent a few days—by my own doing—as the laughingstock of the grade.

As a senior, I entered my last election, this one for student council. Having never sniffed victory, I took a different approach. I ripped off an old Martin Luther King, Jr. speech, peppered with feisty language and angry accusations. I remember it very well—”I’m tiiiired of a pair of librarians who treat us with such disrespect … I’m tired of lame class trips and awful food … I’m tired …” When Mr. Maloney, my history teacher and the student government adviser, read the speech, he told me I had to change the tone and content. I nodded, thought, “Fuck it” and ignored him.

Those two minutes—standing before a platform in the auditorium, the bleachers packed with classmates—were the best of my young life. Kids were going crazy; chanting my name; whistling; hollering. Sure, they were probably mocking the loser who runs five times. But I was naively unaware. And when I finished I knew—in my heart—that I would finally be elected.

This was my time!

My place!

My moment!

I lost.

The heartbreak was real, and intensely painful. But, more than two decades later, my wife insists the story is the opposite of embarrassing; that it tells the early roots of a kid unwilling to accept rejection.

I don’t know if I’ll go that far. But I do hope, through the years, my kids experience plenty of winning—and plenty of losing.

One brings joy.

The other builds character.

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