At Bethesda Elementary, school elections look nothing like the real thing


Blake Layman, 9, who is running for vice president, is giving his speech to his fellow students via BETV -- Bethesda Elementary TV - as part of Bethesda Elementary School's annual election process. Assistant principal Stacey Lillis, right, and competitors listen in. (Astrid Riecken/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
June 8, 2012

The candidate wore a tie-dyed T-shirt and eyeglasses. He stayed on message, keeping his eyes trained on his notes. He emphasized his credentials: a grandfather who was a bank examiner, good grades in math, experience stocking the pencil machine.

The speech was the last chance for Reuben Rochkind, 9, to persuade his fellow students at Bethesda Elementary to elect him treasurer for the next school year — a feat he was trying to accomplish despite restrictions that would give grown-up pols (and their high-priced consultants) fits.

In an election year when attack ads saturate the airwaves, candidates fling “cowpies of distortion,” and Etch a Sketches are suspect, campaigning at Bethesda Elementary is a kind of reverse civics lesson, where the kids do the opposite of what it takes to win in the real world.

Candidates at the affluent, 500-student school, where many parents have political connections of one sort or another, can’t give out buttons. They can’t wear T-shirts bearing their names. They can’t talk about their competition. And they can’t make promises. Not even about school lunches.

Bethesda’s rules are unusual among Montgomery County schools, said Kelly Ham, one of the two teachers who imposed them. At districtwide meetings of student council sponsors, Ham did not come across anyplace else with similar restrictions, she said.

The constraints, which were imposed in the 2008 election cycle to keep campaign expenditures from spiraling out of control, mean the kids have to forgo staples of schoolhouse campaigns, including the always-effective candy giveaways. Promises of slushies in the cafeteria or more recess can get them disqualified.

“We can’t say certain things because the kids would get too excited,” said Blake Layman, 9, a candidate for vice president. The teachers who oversee the election, for instance, put the kibosh on Blake’s idea to have a water-balloon fight on the school’s spirit day.

Blake was one of 10 candidates who crowded into the school’s media center Wednesday and Thursday morning to make their final pitches during the live morning newscast. After the student anchors hurried through announcements, the day’s lunch choices and the weather, each candidate took a turn before the camera.

There were a few gimmicks. Jaden Morris Wallach, 10, used his initials to point out his best qualities: J for justice, M for multitasker, W for wise. It was a risky strategy. (“You’re really going to say your middle name is ‘Morris’?” his mother recalled asking.)

Some used props. At one point in his speech, Reuben whipped out a pair of bricks made of shredded $100 bills that his mother, a former Treasury official, got from the Federal Reserve.

The wedge issue of the 2012 treasurer race is the upkeep of the pencil machine in the hallway staircase. A pencil costs a quarter, and it is the treasurer’s job to fill the machine and collect the money. Students complained that it is often empty. The bellyaching rankled the current treasurer, a fifth-grader who insisted that he had never left the machine empty for more than 48 hours.

But that’s as negative as it got. And that’s by design.

Political rough-and-tumble is frowned upon at Bethesda Elementary, and so is lavish spending. Each candidate has to abide by a six-poster limit and must sign a contract agreeing to follow the rules or get booted from the race.

Most of the parents of the candidates said they approved of the restrictions, although a couple of them chafed a bit.

Judy Wongsam, the mother of Arial Alston, 10, a candidate for treasurer, said her sister, a former high school president, was excited at first to play unofficial campaign manager, until she heard the rules. Her reaction, Wongsam said, was: “What?”

“I probably would have bought all kinds of candy,” acknowledged Dina Ellis Rochkind, Reuben’s mother and a politically savvy Senate staffer. “You had to be a little more creative.”

A few of the kids’ parents are political pros. Maddy Molyneux, 9, a contender for secretary, also has a mother who is a congressional staffer. But she said she got more help on her speech from her father, a pollster.

Vice presidential aspirant Clayton Steiner, 9, had his mom make all his posters. Presidential contender Adam Cohen, 10, consulted with his mother about whether to rap his speech but then decided against it.

The rules made some candidates and their handlers extra cautious. Amy Fishman, a second-grade teacher and the daughter of a retired lobbyist, crossed out a good chunk of the speech for her 10-year-old son Howard, who was running for treasurer. When he complained that the speech was too short, his mother said, ‘‘You’ve got to be able to deliver.”

In the first draft of her speech, Michaela Davis, 10, who ran for president on an anti-bullying platform, admitted that “ ‘sometimes, I can be mean.’ And my mother said, ‘Take that out immediately.’ ”

Without campaign promises to define them, the kids stressed experience. Maddy noted that she had been at the school since kindergarten and wanted to make “her sixth year count.”

Others emphasized personal qualities, such as kindness and thrift.

“I haven’t spent a single dime in about two to three years,” declared Howard.

After the speeches, students in first through fourth grades cast their votes electronically, using a device hooked up to the interactive whiteboards in every classroom. The results were funneled to Ham and fellow teacher Elizabeth von Schwarz. But the candidates didn’t learn the results until Friday afternoon, just before school ended. Von Schwarz said she needed time to contact the candidates’ parents “so they know what mood their kid will be in.”

On Friday, Ham and Principal Lisa Seymour gathered the candidates in a conference room. Ham read the e-mail with the results that she had sent that morning to the kids’ parents.

Some of the kids buried their faces in their hands. Clayton shut his eyes tightly. Arial gnawed on a finger. Just as Ham uttered, “For president,” Seymour cut in. “Before we do that, let’s give ourselves a round of applause.”

The kids clapped fiercely. Then came the results. Adam would be president, and Clayton his veep. Maddy snagged the secretary job, and Arial won dominion over the pencil machine.

The losers congratulated the winners. Howard and Reuben consoled each other with a half-pat, half-hug. And each left with a coupon for a free meal at BGR the Burger Joint and a lollipop.

Some of them, including Reuben, were already looking ahead to the next campaign.

“I want another shot,” he said.

Annys Shin has been a staff writer at the Washington Post since 2004.
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