Zapata

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Voting Day arrived! A rowdy wrap to a raucous school-wide election.  I stood that morning in a huddle with an anxious election committee, Jasmyne and Jermaine (twins), Maddie and Dwayne, and two second graders who loved being out of class.

The bunch bickered about who should have done what. When Jasmyne shouted down her brother – “Be quiet you little fool” – and  choir boy Dwayne demanded that Jasmyne be tossed off the committee for “proven incompetence,” I disbanded our huddle. I would have to take it from there.

We were not ready. Not even close. We had veered from what I had hoped for. A good theme: “Leading means listening”  –  penned by a fifth grade teacher added some depth. We also talked up the merits of voting. However, when the candidates gathered to make speeches, they talked over and past one another, listening about as well as grown-ups.

Two candidates topped the heap:

Jake – nick named “Pink” – was a red-faced white kid favored to win the presidency. He ran a mean campaign, pasting crude words onto other candidates posters, messing up the ends of their slogans. He ran against Matilda, a wide-eyed rouster. On voting day she shouted “It’s the middle of the early” when Pink snarled that she didn’t have a chance. We needed only a scandal and a few sore losers to make things real as a half-eaten peach.

In the midst of our scrappy process, I did, nonetheless, note a mystery: “Viva Zapata!” posters began to appear. We pulled them down and by the next day, they’d appear up again. I knew only one Zapata – Jose Luis Zapata – a waif-ish fourth grader topped by a nest of black hair. Could he be responsible for slapping up these posters? Such an improbable, dream-eyed boy. I quizzed him twice, but he blinked but gave no answer.

With atmosphere unsettled, I borrowed a few third graders to set up folding tables by the playground gates. Tables served as voting booths. Kids would have a chance to vote on their way home. Slapped together ballot boxes, with the sea-otter mascot taped on – the word “Vote” stenciled on the sides – these would suffice.

Ready enough.

At 2:30, the election began. At 2:32, it halted as Pink stole the ballot box and ran it around the yard three times – “Vote for Me! Vote for Me!”  – I snagged the box and on his third pass and we re-started at 2:37.

Twenty minutes in, I scanned lines to see my little mystery approaching: Jose Luis in tank top, blue jeans and a red cap cranked to the side. “Hmmmm,” I said. He stepped to the table, unsheathed a purple pen and lowered the pen to sign his name, huge and brazen across the face of the ballot. “Write in,” he announced and stepped backward through the gate, and down into the criss-cross of alleys below.

The procession paused. What had he done?  Was this a joke? An infraction?  “Can he do that?”  “Well well,” I said to myself. When voting resumed we had shifted. I felt, well, happy! The last student trailed through at 4PM. I picked up the ballot box to head inside. I counted to ballots into two piles – plus a write-in. A single, self-proclaiming purple tag on card stock.

There you go, principal. We each have a song to sing. Every song will someday be heard. Sometimes we whisper. Sometimes we wail. Sometimes we must write ourselves in. With quiet urgency, you got to see a boy today create an opening for destiny. Viva!

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