Sunday, October 2, 2016
The Curious Case of Smarmy K.: A Moral Story for Our Age
In my school, like schools everywhere, we had an elected student council whose charge was to debate the issues of the day affecting the student body. Elections were held in first-bell classrooms shortly after Labor Day, and the chosen representatives met every Thursday until school concluded in June.
In my home room a girl nominated Susan B. to be our student council representative. Susan was the smartest kid in the group, if not in our entire grade, and she was hard-working and responsible to boot. A second student nominated Johnny T. Johnny was an outstanding athlete and one of the most popular kids in our cohort. Then a kid in the back row raised his hand. He said he was nominating Smarmy K. (the nickname of a classmate who I will otherwise leave unnamed). For a moment the nomination was met with silence, but then the room erupted in titters and giggling. Smarmy was the most unlikely nominee imaginable. He was looked down upon by virtually everyone. He was a bully, coarse and vulgar, self-centered, ridiculed girls, slandered blacks and Jews, was hostile toward teachers, and was generally regarded as stupid, if not moronic. He smoked, he drank, and he spent much of his time scratching his crotch and rolling his eyes. Nobody expected Smarmy to remain in school much longer, much less be nominated for student council.
The election was held the following day. Of the 24 votes cast in our room, Susan got 8, Johnny T. got 7, and Smarmy got 9. The teacher decided that no one had gotten a majority, so she called for a runoff between Susan and Smarmy. I think she was privately certain that Susan would win. However, Susan only got 11 votes. Smarmy got 13. He became our new representative.
It had been a secret ballot, and nobody talked much about their choices afterwards. However, it seemed clear that there were a bunch of angry student voters — angry at the school and the teachers, envious of more successful classmates, and even rejecting of the premise of a student government. It wasn’t that anybody admired Smarmy or thought he would do an adequate job. However, voting for Smarmy, and thus electing the worst possible person, was a slap in the face at the powers that be. I’d like to say that this story had a happy ending, e.g., by Smarmy being transformed into a much improved person by virtue of his new role. However, to my knowledge, he never went to a single meeting of student council, and he remained as much of an outcast as he’d ever been. He dropped out of school the following year.
We were taught in civics class, of course, that democracy is the highest form of government, and our student elections were pitched as a real-life laboratory in democracy. I did acquire an appreciation for democracy in school, but also some appreciation of its risks and occasional failings. A successful democracy rests upon an intelligent, informed, and responsible electorate. An angry and irresponsible electorate, on the other hand, can reap destruction. Let’s hope that voters won’t re-elect Smarmy K. or his ilk the next time around.