By Erik Alsgaard, Special Contributor…
Election Day 2012 was unique in my life. For the first time ever, I entered the voting booth and filled in those little ovals (left over from my SATs, I’m guessing) with the No. 2 pencil they provided—and voted for myself.
I was running for a seat on the St. Ignace (Mich.) Public School Board, a situation I never dreamed of five months ago, and a position I would never have sought had it not been for Andy.
Andy was a 15-year-old kid with a bright future. Andy lived right behind the church. I could see his house from my office. Andy worked at the local McDonalds and would often be the server when I made my all-too-frequent dashes there for a late-night ice cream cone. Andy was a bright kid, a smart kid, and sometimes, painfully shy.
Andy was also bullied. And from what I learned, it was a lot. Both at school and at home, Andy faced an almost constant barrage of bullying. Especially brutal were the comments posted on his Facebook page from which he had almost no escape.
One night last summer, Andy’s girlfriend broke up with him. For most teens, this is a rite of adolescence, a learning moment in life’s classroom of figuring out relationships.
But not for Andy. This was too much. So early in the morning, while his parents slept soundly in their room above, Andy sneaked into the basement and shot himself in the head.
The next day, I was reading reaction to this tragedy on Facebook. People were outraged that this had happened; some were blaming the city; some were blaming the parents; some were blaming the school.
One person wrote, “Someone ought to do something about this.”
I was halfway through typing, “Yes, I agree, someone ought to do something,” when it hit me. I could do something. I had a church. I had a pulpit. I could do something.
And so I deleted what I was going to type, and instead, I invited people to come to my church that night to talk. At 7 p.m., in the church, we had about 30 people gather. We talked, we cried, we yelled, we hugged. At the end, the group said it wanted to do more to stop bullying in our town and in our schools. The idea was put forward that a grassroots petition would be a good vehicle to get our concerns across to the school board.
About 14 days later, at another meeting at my church, we circulated pages and pages of petitions. In the end, we gathered more than 200 signatures. Not bad for a city with a population of about 2,500.
I presented the petitions to the school board last September. They were gracious in allowing me to speak to them and to distribute copies of the petitions to each school board member. But that was it. There was no discussion, no give-and-take, no questions asked of me. I was told by the president of the school board that the “public forum” time on the agenda was only for people to come and talk to the board; the school board members were under no expectation or obligation to respond. They pointed me in the direction of the “School Improvement Committee,” where my concerns would be more properly addressed, they said.
I mentioned this turn of events to a member of my church. This person said that there was a vacancy on the school board in the upcoming November election. I said I’d give it some prayer and some thought, and then let this person know.
A few days later, this church member stopped me short. Jabbing a finger in my chest, they said: “I’ll gather the signatures you need to be placed on the ballot if you say yes.”
I said yes.
I did absolutely no campaigning. When the draft of the ballot was handed out for “we” candidates to check, I noticed that my name was misspelled. I was also the only candidate for the job.
Then a write-in candidate for the job surfaced, and I publicly told people that I hoped she’d win. I mean, I think it’s great to want to give back to one’s community by serving for a public office. That was my motivation: to give back to the community and to keep the issue of bullying at the fore of discussions.
Late on election night, as the country was waiting to see who would be our next president, I was surfing the Web, searching for school board election results in St. Ignace. After all, Brian Williams, Wolf Blitzer and Jon Stewart were ignoring this most important race (to me).
About 1:30 in the morning, the local newspaper sent out an email with the results. Ten pages of results, from president literally down to drain commissioners.
And there, in small type, in the middle of the results, I found my name: 1,037 votes. The write-in candidate: 168.
I had won.
Thank you, Andy.
The Rev. Alsgaard is the pastor of St. Ignace United Methodist Church in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.