Tierney Cahill, a 6th grade teacher from Reno, Nev., was impelled by her students during a civics lesson to run for public office in the 2000 election. Placing them in charge of her campaign, she decided to seek a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, which would pit her against incumbent Rep. Jim Gibbons, a Republican who is now Nevada’s governor, in the state’s 2nd Congressional District. As a Democrat in a conservative city, and with only $7,000 to spend, she expected to be defeated even in the primary. Instead, she won her party’s nomination and ultimately received 30 percent of the general-election vote. In a new book, Ms. Cahill for Congress, she recounts her campaign, the students’ participation, and the lessons they all learned over the course of the election year. The following is an excerpt.
It seemed like just another afternoon at school. As I looked out at my class that September day in 1999, I pondered how to engage them. I knew that unless I got my 6th grade students excited about ancient Greece, they would look upon the unit as a boring lesson about a bunch of dead people in togas. So I launched into a passionate discourse about how ancient Greece established the first democracy, one that our founding fathers had looked to when establishing our government. After explaining the differences between America’s representative democracy and the Greek model of direct democracy, I moved on to the great Athenian general Pericles, who believed that if you don’t participate in your representative government, you have no place in society.
At the back of the class, Heather, a quiet brown-haired girl well respected by her classmates, raised her hand.
“Well, that may have been fine for the Greeks, Ms. Cahill,” she announced. “But you can’t run for office in this country unless you’re a millionaire or you know a lot of millionaires.”
Wow, she’s already figured that out at age 12, I thought. How sad.
I, too, felt that if you’re not wealthy, you don’t really have a way to participate meaningfully in this country’s political system. But it wasn’t my role as a teacher to pass on my personal views.
“That’s not exactly true,” I countered. “All citizens in our country have the right to run for office. Would having a million dollars make things easier? I’m sure it would. But not having the money isn’t going to prevent someone from being able to run.”
I became so wrapped up in cheerleading for democracy, I neglected to think three steps ahead. I should have seen the next comment coming. Sixth graders are renowned for daring each other.
“Well, then, why don’t you prove it, Ms. Cahill?” Heather challenged. “Why don’t you run for office? You’re a fair person, you’re funny, you’d be great.”
After a moment of uncomfortable silence during which I couldn’t manage to spit out an answer, the rest of the class took up the idea and added their voices to Heather’s. “Yeah!” and “Why don’t you?” and “That’d be awesome!” rose up from the students like a wave.
Are you kidding me? I thought in a panic. …
Looking at 28 intent faces, I knew that I had just been handed a test. Would this grown-up be as contradictory and hypocritical as so many of the adults and personalities in their lives? If our country worked the way I had said it did, and if normal people could—and should—be involved in government, then as their teacher I shouldn’t have a problem stepping up to do what they’d asked. It was as if they were saying, “Either you are what you say you are and you believe that whole line you gave us, or you’re totally full of crap, and we’re going to find out right now.” In many ways, our roles of teacher and pupil had suddenly switched.
What I say is really going to matter, and I’d better think fast, I realized.
Thoughts rocketed through my brain like simultaneous fireworks explosions.
Oh my god, what have I gotten myself into?
Do I believe what I told them? Or am I simply a mouthpiece for the establishment? Are these kids going to look back and resent me someday when they think about their teacher’s rosy, half-honest introduction to politics?
How the hell can I run for office? I’m a divorced mom with three little kids. I have no money. I don’t even own a house.
If I say no, will that prove their worst suspicions about people and the world around them?
This is crazy. I have no time, no influence, and absolutely no political connections. The only Kennedy I’m in good with is my daughter Kennedy.
This could be the best civics lesson ever!
Geez, what would my principal say?
There’s no way I can do this.
This would be so cool for the kids! Why can’t I do it?
How many adults whom these kids look up to wind up disappointing them? I don’t want to be one of them.
Maybe she’s right; maybe I should run.
As I looked at Heather’s face, I realized that we ask children all the time to be brave. We ask them to be leaders, to say no to peer pressure, to turn down drugs, to step away from the crowd, and to be unafraid to take on challenges. We’re really good at expecting that kind of courage from children, but how often do they see adults step up? How often do we actually model that you can do or be anything you want in life? …
The following morning, I delivered my verdict to my class. “I will accept your challenge and agree to run for office, on one condition. My challenge to you is that as a class you will run this campaign.” A cheer went up.
I was beyond excited. I had them in a place where they cared. They would be driving the curriculum, with their choices leading us on our journey of discovery. I knew this campaign would generate passionate curiosity. Deep inside I’ve always known that that’s how education should be, for therein lies the richest learning.
From Ms. Cahill for Congress: One Fearless Teacher, Her Sixth-Grade Class, and the Election That Changed Their Lives Forever © 2008 by Tierney Cahill and Linden Gross. (Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, www.ballantinebooks.com; 256 pp., $14 paperback)
A version of this article appeared in the November 05, 2008 edition of Education Week as Tippecanoe and Teacher Too