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Reflections On My Student Government Career Now That I Know More About Government

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Benjamin Deitchman
October 28, 2019

“I believe that I can assist in organizing our class and bridging the gap in communication as we build a bridge to the twenty-first century. As you vote, ask not what you can do for your class, ask what I, Ben Deitchman, can do for you.” —Campaign Speech for Junior Class Secretary, Fox Lane High School, 1999

Now that I have over a dozen years of work, research and teaching experience in public policy and public administration, I am well-qualified to reassess my first foray into governmental leadership: my service as the Secretary of the Class of 2001 for my Junior and Senior years at Fox Lane High School. Student government can be a vapid popularity contest among college applicants looking to bolster their list of extracurricular activities, but it can also be an opening foray into democracy, participation and crashing against institutional and bureaucratic resistance to innovation. Student government is a valuable learning experience and a reflection of our culture’s civic values.

The whimsical and satirical high school comedy Election debuted in movie theaters the same spring as my run for the third highest position in the Junior Class. A darker satirical series also about high school elections, The Politician, has just started streaming on Netflix, contextualizing how the collective teenage world has evolved over the last two decades. Big picture politics during the latter period of the Clinton Presidency were at times sordid and contentious, but they were not the ruthless, incessant and personal divisiveness of the Trump Era. Today’s high schoolers face new pressures and have become more central to political engagement around highly controversial issues that have a direct impact on their lives, such as firearms regulation and climate change, in comparison to the relative immunity for my elder millennial peers’ adolescent years.   

I ran for student government before social media became a medium in elections. The signs I posted around the school had amusing messages, such as, “Ben Deitchman is voting for himself, you should too,” (an homage to the scene in Election where one candidate does not feel comfortable with his own name appearing on the ballot) and, “Ben Deitchman can take minutes: 8:01, 8:02, 8:03 …” (a lame joke I ripped off from Married… With Children), but the campaigning was mostly confined to a single speech on Election Day. There was some tension among candidates and some coalition building with the various cliques across the school, but the final selections were mostly a result of glancing impressions of the candidates from appropriately apathetic classmates casting compulsory votes for these minor roles.

Fortunately for my self-evaluation, I saved the text of the highly embellished campaign speech that I delivered in the school cafeteria in 1999. From my proposed class survey and newsletter to a crab-soccer game, I did not keep a single promise. Despite these failings and the fact that I was a timid teenager, I still managed to win reelection as the incumbent the next year with an overconfident off-the-cuff declaration. To be fair, on supporting matters, such as prom planning and fundraiser organizing, I proved to be adequate in the Secretary role.

The biggest and most disingenuous promises of my speech related to expansion of on-campus parking opportunities for students in the 11th grade. The school administration restricted parking to only faculty, staff and Seniors, as there simply was not enough space for more vehicles. Underclassmen had been asking for years to be able to drive to school before their final year and the student government was powerless to open up the opportunity. Although my intention was to plead and petition this matter, once elected there was no reason to persistently pursue this request.

In hindsight, not only was Junior parking a non-starter, it was parochial pandering of a bad policy idea. The school had adequate busing and transportation options. Junior parking would have increased traffic at morning rush hour on already overburdened local roads and added additional vehicle emissions in our community. As a matter of public safety, more young drivers speeding to get to class on time would have been dangerous. In an economically diverse public school district, such as the one I attended, it would have also expanded inequalities among students based on their families’ abilities to afford an additional automobile. At 16 I was not processing the unintended consequences of poor policy proposals.

My time in student government was more fun than it was formative. There were debates, but, even at the time, I had the perspective that the issues and jurisdiction were appropriately small. In a district where significant attention and resources went into school board and budget votes, with a lawsuit about the curriculum including allusions to diverse cultures dragging on for years and garnering national attention, a clearer introduction into politics and its impact on student life was the local Board of Education. That said, to quote Drake (as I would assume is popular for 2019 student government campaigns), for all of us who’ve transitioned over the decades from mediocre student government representatives to real-life government professionals, “Started from the bottom, now we’re here.”


Author: Benjamin Deitchman is a public policy practitioner and author in Atlanta, GA. He was the Secretary of the Class of 2001 at Fox Lane High School in Bedford, NY. He lost student government elections in middle school and college, but he was the Founding President of the Public Policy Graduate Student Association at Georgia Tech. He’s on Twitter @Deitchman.

           

 

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