Derrell Simpson started out his campaign for school president with a war chest of $80. How could he go wrong?
Photographs by Darrow Montgomery
Derrell Simpson thinks that his classmates at Bertie Backus Middle School are ready for a professional politician to be their president. A professional campaign starts with name recognition. And name recognition starts with posters.
That’s why, on an October afternoon, the halls of Backus are wallpapered with promos for Derrell and his vice-presidential running mate, Kervin Sanches. If you go to your locker, you’ll find a “Derrell” poster overhead. If you go to the bathroom, there is “Derrell.” And if you bend over for a drink at the water fountain, two “Derrell” posters stare back at you.
Unless they’re very thirsty, though, Backus voters might not notice the fine print on the “Derrell” signs: “Paid for by the Committee To Elect Derrell & Kervin, SS 2002, Natalie Hurd, Treasurer.” The committee consists of Derrell’s mom and grandmother.
The candidate is a tall, handsome, and sometimes frenetic 13-year-old, with a dark complexion and a tidy school uniform. He learned the fine points of postering over the summer, when he started working as a volunteer for Ward 5 Councilmember Vincent Orange. Derrell spends his free time this fall on the Ward 5 hustings, where, under the watchful eyes of Orange’s campaign manager, Pierpont Mobley, he has become a master of the staple gun. He can “flag” a telephone pole with posters in a matter of minutes and, without hesitation, rattle off the five busiest intersections in Ward 5. Derrell is so zealous about postering that Mobley often has to rein in his young charge with a “That’s enough now!”
In his school campaign, Derrell has even adapted a standard strategy of veteran political consultants: gender-based messaging. At his grandmother’s suggestion, he made sure the sign by the boys’ bathroom is blue, and the one next to the girls’ bathroom is pink.
Derrell also knows that seeing the same sign over and over gets tired, even with color variations. So he has produced several designs, each with a slightly different spin. In some, he uses only his first name. In others, he highlights Kervin’s name. Along the top, he has “Do the right thing”—a riff off Mayor Anthony A. Williams’ write-in campaign slogan—and along the bottom, “Putting Backus Students First”—a variation on “Putting People First.”
The latter is the campaign motto of Harry Thomas Jr., son of the late D.C. councilmember and Orange’s opponent in the Democratic primary. Derrell is not an admirer of Thomas; in fact, during Orange’s primary fight, he liked to remind people, “We’re running on our record, not our father’s name.” But when Derrell hears a good catch phrase, he’s quick to appropriate it. Another of his favorite slogans is “The Change We Need.” He got that from a commercial for Bob Ehrlich, the Republican candidate for governor of Maryland.
Besides the Derrell-Kervin ticket, there are three other slates in the schoolhouse campaign. One is led by Ibijoke Akinbowale, a smart, earnest girl whom Derrell likes to tease in homeroom. Another is led by Monique Jackson, a petite and self-assured youngster whose main credential is that she helps out with filing in the main office.
The only candidate Derrell is worried about, the only one who puts in as much effort as he does, is the pretty, willowy Kiana Bundrige, who happens to be the manager of the football team. Besides the usual letter-size bills, Kiana has put up three movie-poster-size signs that are mounted on foam core and feature a carefully posed, soft-lit color-copied photo of her mounted in the center.
One morning, Derrell and Kervin walk out to the school lobby to check out Kiana’s big ads.
“She had a professional do it,” says Kervin.
“Yeah, she a professional,” says Derrell, fingering the foam core. “Look what I’m up against!” he says, smacking the poster lightly with one hand.
“Man!” says Kervin. “She ain’t gonna win!”
Lunch at the Backus cafeteria is a frustrating time for the students, who are just now discovering the wonders of the opposite sex. Backus’ halls rattle with speculative chatter about who likes whom, who’s splitting up with whom, who thinks who is cute, and so on.
But under school rules for seventh- and eighth-graders, boys and girls may not mix in the lunch hall. They must sit on separate sides of the cafeteria. If a member of the opposite sex strays into the wrong side, a lunch monitor promptly chastises him or her over a set of loudspeakers, with warnings such as “Young lady, you have no business being in the boys’ section!” So the young lady must retreat to her gender area.
That young lady is Derrell Simpson’s target voter.
Through his highly informal polling and focus-group analysis, Derrell has determined that gender segregation could be a hot-button issue in the coming school election. Boys and girls already have to sit apart in class. Lunchtime, however, is sacred leisure time. Any restrictions placed on it are an assault on childhood itself. Or, as Derrell likes to put it: “There’s no law downtown that says the boys can’t sit with the girls!”
Derrell regards other adolescent rituals at the school, such as pep rallies and dances, with similar sanctimony. But thanks to a change in principals and “student behavior,” there haven’t been any pep rallies or dances at Backus this year. Derrell advocates bringing such spectacles back at least once a month—if not to bolster flagging school spirit, then to help preserve the sanity of Backus students, who, Derrell calculates, spend “seven hours, 15 minutes, and three seconds” each day in class. “If the principal hadn’t done all these things, I wouldn’t get votes,” he notes.
For those Backus voters who’d just as soon hang with their own gender at lunch or would happily forgo cheerleaders and awkward slow dances, Derrell has a fallback plank designed for broader demographic appeal: the quality of cafeteria food.
There isn’t a pupil in D.C. public schools who doesn’t crave something better than cold hot dogs and slimy cole slaw—which makes the cafeteria-food issue the statehood of school politics.
Derrell is a realist, though. He isn’t going to promise something he can’t deliver. “I can’t do anything about school lunch,” he acknowledges. What he can do is to try and persuade school officials to reopen a store in the rear of the cafeteria—known as “the Back”—that once sold juice, Skittles, chips, and other snacks. School administrators closed the Back at the beginning of the year, saying the store competed with federally subsidized school lunches, in violation of school-system regulations. But Derrell isn’t going to let Big Government get in the way of hungry kids.
By the time Derrell has finished posting his vision of a mixed-gender, Skittles-filled future for Backus’ 582 students to see, though, his opponents have taken nearly identical positions on the same issues. He knows he has to differentiate himself, and he has two chances to do so: a taped debate with the other presidential candidates, which will be aired on the school’s video system a couple of days before the election, and a three-minute speech to be delivered at an assembly the morning of the vote.
Derrell heads a slate of candidates who consist of his closest pals from homeroom, starting with Kervin, 13, his best friend. The two have adjoining lockers. They have almost all the same classes. And they eat lunch together every day. Though Kervin is nearly a foot shorter than Derrell, and rounder, he’s got the attitude of a teenager twice his size. He bristles when Derrell introduces him as “my vice president.”
“Man, I ain’t your vice president,” Kervin says. “You my president.”
This is the first year that Kervin, or anyone at school, for that matter, has seen Derrell’s political side. Before, Derrell says, he didn’t really talk about it. And now that he’s in full campaign mode, his classmates seem vaguely impressed, even a little intimidated.
“He’s got a great political background,” says Kiana. “He’s serious. Sometimes too serious. I mean, it’s school. He’s not running for president of the United States.”
In middle school, showing up your peers isn’t usually a good idea. Without realizing it, that’s what Derrell ends up doing quite often—such as when he carries his posters around with him all the time, tosses around phrases like “single-member district,” and has all the teachers cooing over his bright future in politics.
The morning of the debate taping, the backlash sets in. As the candidates sit on stage waiting for the camera to roll, Monique accuses Derrell of thinking he’s better than everyone, what with his fancy stickers and the fliers he’s been handing out with lollipops in them. Then she hurls the most stinging pejorative one eighth-grader can use on another: She calls him conceited.
Before Derrell can respond, Bruce Nelson, the student-government adviser, shushes them. “You can’t have side conversations,” he warns.
Derrell is already nervous, and the trash talk doesn’t help. When Nelson instructs him to give a brief introduction, he shoots up out of his chair, his leg shaking. “I’m Derrell Simpson,” he says, smiling. “I’m running for president.”
Derrell stares at the audience, which consists of Nelson’s homeroom students, and sits down. After a pause, he starts his introduction again—just as Monique launches into hers.
“‘Scuse me?” she says, cutting him off.
Things don’t improve much after the intros. When Nelson asks him why he’s running, Derrell can’t seem to figure out whether to follow his instincts or ignore them. The conflict paralyzes him. “Uh, I wish to become president—I, like Kervin said—change needs to be made.”
Nelson moves on to another question. “What qualities do you possess that will make you a great leader?” he asks. “Ms. Jackson?”
Monique takes the question leaning back comfortably in her chair. “OK, I’m a nice person, and I get along with most students,” she replies. “And I’m a student…”
“Because I am a student, I can be among them and can hear their concerns.”
Out of nowhere comes a noise: tap, tap, tap. The tapping grows louder. It takes a few seconds before everyone traces the sound to Derrell’s foot. He hears it, too—and stops. “That’s it for that,” he says.
Both Derrell’s legs begin to bounce as his answers get shorter. Now Nelson asks him to plug the marquee program of his would-be administration.
Derrell responds: “Uh. That program would be—uh—that program would be the student-government store. I want to make it so we can buy—pass, pass, pass, pass!”
That’s as articulate as Derrell gets. Kiana, however, smoothly answers every question. She drubs Derrell with her poise and persuasiveness. After 20 minutes or so, Nelson signals the cameraman to shut off the tape. Then he takes the kids to task. “Some of you have to get to work on your public speaking,” he says. “Perception is everything—in everything.”
Principal Johnny Vann, who has been silently observing the proceedings, launches into everyone’s favorite public-speaking parable—the Nixon-Kennedy debate. “Kennedy looked like he had on a white, cleaner shirt,” says Vann. “Kennedy won a lot of the female votes because he looked better than Nixon.
“It’s about the colors you wear,” Vann continues, pacing before the candidates. “What color suits do I usually wear?”
“Dark colors,” the kids reply.
“Dark colors, right. Dark colors are power colors,” says Vann. “A lot of times people are not elected because they’re the smartest or the best.”
Before Nelson dismisses the candidates, he announces that he’s going to give them one more try: He will scrap this debate and schedule another one that he will air. Monique and Ibijoke look irritated. Derrell and Kervin look relieved.
As the kids walk off the stage and gather their things, Kervin congratulates Kiana on her
unofficial victory. “You did good,” he says. “I was scared.”
Ibijoke rushes up to Derrell. “What’s wrong with you? You were horrible.”
“I could’ve been better,” he says, incredulous over his performance. “I have three years’ leadership experience.”
Kiana attempts to console him. “All you need to do is practice, Derrell. I mean, I’m used to speaking in front of people after three years of dance rehearsals and ballet and plays and modeling shows.”
Like a big sister, she puts her arm around Derrell and walks him slowly up the aisle toward the auditorium doors.
Derrell is still shocked. “I’ve been involved in so many things,” he says. “Last summer I worked for that group, uh, uh—the Children and Youth Investment Trust Fund.”
“That’s something you can use to get back at me,” Kiana says helpfully.
As Derrell and Kervin head back to class, a boy in the upstairs hallway stops them.
“You Derrell Simpson?” he says.
“You want me to vote for you?”
“How many times?—-Psych!”
Derrell crinkles his forehead and says, “I got to call Mr. Mobley.”
Before the start of every school year, Derrell writes up a list of life goals. Becoming president of Backus student government didn’t make this year’s list. However, Derrell counts the position as a step toward achieving Goal No. 2: “To become an elected official in D.C.” (Goal No. 1: “To start a successful business dealing with politics and engages the community and youth in D.C.”)
Derrell set his sights on an office in the Wilson Building shortly after he joined the Orange re-election bid, in May. While his friends languished in summer jobs or went to the mall, Derrell fell in love with D.C. politics. Over Labor Day weekend, he put up posters with Mobley. The morning of the Sept. 10 primary, he arrived at school early, but not to study. On election days, the back entrance of Backus doubles as Precinct 66, the polling station with the most registered voters in Ward 5. “The person who wins 66 wins Ward 5,” Derrell explains. After school, he went back to the polling area and solicited votes for Orange alongside the Rev. Willie Wilson and Mayor Williams.
At the Joseph H. Cole Fitness Center in Trinidad, where Derrell worked over the summer, his supervisors nicknamed him “Little Bow Tie.” Around the Orange campaign, he is known simply as “the general.”
Orange personally came up with the moniker, and Derrell is extremely loyal to him. When Derrell hears people challenge Orange’s record, he wears them down with a list of Orange’s accomplishments, from tree trimming on the streets to the ward’s new Home Depot.
A municipal legislative post usually doesn’t make the list of dream occupations for middle-schoolers. And even Derrell’s aspirations used to be more conventional. For years, he wanted to be a cop. Neighbors remember him running around Trinidad wearing a police badge. He even wore the rib-padding from his football uniform under his shirt once, telling everyone it was a bulletproof vest.
The person who finally got Derrell to hand in his shield was his neighbor, the late Trinidad community activist Reda Jones. When Derrell was 9 years old, Jones took him on as a protege. He had already been fetching groceries for elderly people in the neighborhood. Soon he was also fixing kids’ bikes and giving away canned food from his kitchen pantry, much to his mother’s consternation.
At times, Derrell’s desire to be useful can be overwhelming. “Sometimes you have to stop him. He just wants to take on so much,” says Cole Unit Manager Barbara Kenner.
“He’s a pain in the butt,” says Andre Pressey, another Cole employee. “But in the ‘How can I help all the time?’ way.”
After Jones became ill with cancer, her friend and fellow activist Wilhelmina Lawson took over mentoring Derrell. When Lawson ran for advisory neighborhood commissioner four years ago, she recalls that Derrell, then 9, couldn’t wait to start campaigning. “He said, ‘I’ll make you a flier,’ I said, ‘Calm down!’”
Since then, Derrell has only grown more sophisticated in his knowledge of the D.C. political scene. Besides his childhood buddies in Trinidad and his pals at school, he now counts among his friends former Councilmember John Ray, Ward 5 Democratic Committee Chair Frank Wilds, and school-board member Tommy Wells. Earlier this year, he landed a gig as a community coordinator for the NAACP Youth Council.
If all that exposure to real-world politics hasn’t given Derrell the most original Backus platform, it has at least made him the school’s king of political jargon. At lunch one day, after eating half a hot dog that Kervin splits with him, he chats with friends, pops a straw, then gives a preview of his plan for victory.
“This is my strategy,” he says. “I call this ‘the strategies for success.’”
The Orange campaign, he explains, divided up the election season into a number of stages; at each stage, the councilmember distributed a different piece of promotional literature. Derrell takes credit for having helped write the copy for the “memo” stage of the Orange campaign. The resulting fliers were passed out to Ward 5 constituents on primary day.
Retrofitting the “stage” stratagem to middle-school politics, though, requires more forethought than Derrell realizes.
“Stage 3 was to put these big posters up,” he says. “Stage 5 is lollipops. No, no, Stage 5 was literature. Stage 6 is lollipops. Stage 7 is going to be posters….Stage 9 is Blow Pops. Nooo. Stage 9 is big posters. Stage 10 is Blow Pops. Stage 9—I mean, Stage 12 is stickers. Stage 11 is banners….”
The hard part about trying to be a leader of youth is, well, youth.
No matter how hard Derrell tries, his peers don’t necessarily appreciate his precocious talents. While grown-ups anoint him junior mayor and the like, the kids he grew up with still call him “black” because of his complexion, or “burned biscuit.” At school, his male friends just call him Booger.
Over the summer, Derrell discovered how hard it can be to get kids interested in local politics. Not long after he joined the Orange campaign, he ran an initiative called “Kids Care for Orange.” It was supposed to be a way of rallying support among young people in Ward 5 for the councilmember. The climax of Kids Care came in August, at a meet-and-greet in Trinidad that Derrell helped organize. Before a crowd of Orange supporters and a squad of screaming cheerleaders, Derrell handed the councilmember a letter from Kids Care thanking Orange for a job well done. “It said, ‘We believe in you,’” recalls Orange. “‘And if it were up to us, you would be councilmember for four more years.’” Although Derrell managed to get as many as 30 kids out to an event, he admits there were only three or four kids who would help out besides himself.
If Derrell has trouble finding other die-hard politicos his own age, he’s doing something right with the ladies. At school, girls are always finding an excuse to hit Derrell, who has bypassed some of the more awkward aspects of adolescence. He’s bigger than many of the kids in his grade, but not freakishly so. His cheeks have begun to lose their baby fat, but the skin on his face is still smooth. He doesn’t wear braces. Girls seem especially fond of his smile.
Kervin is usually the one who acts as his go-between. Being Derrell’s romantic proxy requires delicate diplomacy, such as asking girls—hypothetically, of course—if they would they ever “go with” Derrell. When the answer is negative, Kervin is also the one who has to break the news, as he does one day about a girl named Tiffany.
“That girl don’t like you!” Kervin tells Derrell. “I asked her, ‘Why you don’t say hi to Derrell?’ And she said, ‘What for?’”
When it comes to dealing with grown-ups, Derrell doesn’t need any help at all. They are usually awed by his potential and mature demeanor. And unlike many teenagers, who get a kick from baffling their elders with strange slang, Derrell speaks in a language that adults understand. Or, rather, he mimics adultspeak for them. When pitching Kids Care for Orange, for instance, he says things like, “The councilmember has touched the youth through his legislation.” Or he deploys phrases that sound as if they came from someone’s grandmother: “An empty wagon makes a lot of noise. Listen to Harry Thomas’ wagon. It’s noisy,” he says. “But listen to Vincent Orange’s wagon. It’s quiet. It rides nice.”
Not surprisingly, Derrell’s old-timey way of talking goes over particularly well with senior citizens. Indeed, if his classmates at Backus were all octogenarians, he would be elected in a landslide.
In August, Derrell accompanied an Orange campaign volunteer to Brookland, to hand out fliers on a block where all the houses sported signs for Thomas. Instead of just leaving literature in their mailboxes, Derrell couldn’t resist chatting up an elderly lady and her daughter on their porch. By the time he was finished talking to them, the women had not only promised to vote for Orange, they asked Derrell to take the Thomas sign out of their yard.
“They said, ‘Well, take that sign out my yard! Take it witcha!’” Derrell recalls. “That made me feel real good, taking that Harry Thomas sign.”
A few of Derrell’s friends and relatives speculate that his finesse with the silver-haired set stems from the fact that he’s really one of them—an old soul trapped in a young person’s body.
Derrell has numerous old-fogyish attributes. For example, whereas most boys view a shirt and tie as little more than a straitjacket, Derrell as a small child cried when his mother put a sweat shirt on him, because he couldn’t tuck it in. And while other grade-schoolers were still carting around blankets or stuffed animals, Derrell toted a clipboard and a pen—a habit he maintains to this day.
Part of Derrell’s charm—and challenge—is that he’s so busy acting like an adult that he can forget that he’s still a kid. “Sometimes, he looks at me like, ‘Do you know who I am?’” says his mom, Catrice Simpson.
Like any mother, though, Simpson has learned to trump her child with his own logic—by drawing parallels between her son’s campaign-trail promises and his schoolboy responsibilities. “I tell him, ‘You said you’d do your homework, and you didn’t. Why should anyone believe you when you say you’ll pick up the trash? You are all talk.’”
Occasionally, adults refuse to see Derrell as anything but a young whippersnapper. In those situations, Derrell is quick to demand respect. For example, in June, after he tried to quiet some chattering senior citizens at a Trinidad community meeting, an elderly woman turned to him and complained, “Who you tryin’ to shush? Who do you think you are?”
Exasperated, Derrell replied, “I’m Derrell Simpson, community coordinator for the NAACP Youth Council. That’s who I am.”
A couple of days after the practice debate, Derrell seems to have bounced back from his forensic fiasco. Part of the reason, he boasts, is that Monique’s vice president, Tiara, recently asked him to “go with her.”
“I said, ‘Oh?’ I acted surprised,” says Derrell. “I said, ‘No.’ I’ll check that out after the election. I don’t want to get anything messed up.”
(When Kervin hears this, he dismisses it with a roll of the eyes: “He lyin’.”)
Derrell says he also typed up a letter to Kiana asking her to speak at an event he’s been planning to get out the youth vote. He knows she bested him at the debate. He’s reaching out, as Lawson has taught him to, not holding a grudge.
The letter is no white flag, though. The weekend after his debating debacle, Derrell holes himself up with his copy of The Art of Public Speaking, by Stephen E. Lucas, a textbook that Lawson used to make him study. “There’s a part dealing with nervousness,” he says. “It says ‘Prepare, prepare, prepare.’”
Following this mantra, Derrell has been practicing his delivery in front of his mom’s camcorder. He had a cousin stay over and pepper him with questions. And he’s analyzed his mistakes with Mobley.
Mobley has told his pupil to keep it simple and not be too forceful. “Derrell is, I would think, a little bit above the regular 13-year-old, using large words they haven’t been associated with. Living in inner cities using big words is—braggadocious! You can get smart pants if you want to you get ostracized.”
Derrell says Mobley also suggested that he borrow a trick from John F. Kennedy’s playbook, by answering a question with another question. He relishes any new addition to his budding rhetorical arsenal, especially one that comes thoroughly tested by professionals. “I want to do that!” Derrell says. “That’s how I’m gonna do—ask them questions!
“‘Whatcha say?’” he says, practicing. “I can’t wait for someone to say they like school lunches. ‘You do? I don’t!’”
The day of the second debate, Derrell is more eager than nervous. He and Kervin arrive a few minutes early in the main office to meet Nelson for the taping. When Derrell doesn’t see any of the other candidates, he hits Kervin on the shoulder.
“I think we’re the only ones who take this serious,” he says.
Ibijoke wanders in a couple of minutes later. Derrell immediately sidles up to her and
asks her truthful opinion about whether he acts conceited.
Ibijoke sighs. “You don’t want to know the truth, Derrell.”
In the auditorium, Derrell takes a seat on the stage and studies the talking points that he’s written out for Kervin and himself. This time, he keeps them at the ready, on his clipboard, which he bounces on his lap.
The debate gets off to a jerky start. Nelson rearranges the seats several times. He forces the cameraman to restart the tape. One false start is entirely because of Kiana. When Nelson prompts her to begin her introduction, she stares blankly at the lens and starts to make a time-out sign.
“Time!” she says, professing to be in a daze. Flustered, she asks Nelson to move on to another candidate. Then she thinks better of it, insisting that she can “pull myself together.”
“Good morning, Backus students and staff,” resumes Kiana. “I want to be president because I want to get better activities for youth. I’m not going to say better school lunches, just better things, you know, just have better things for you guys, but you sometimes you have to help out too….I don’t know what I’m saying,” she says, starting to laugh. “Oh god!”
“Do you realize you’re on tape!?” asks Nelson.
“I’m sorry, y’all!” she wails.
Derrell does his best to contain himself. He’s actually disappointed that she’s not going to come after him, now that he’s prepared. At the same time, he’s relieved. He thinks he has the election in the bag.
When it’s his turn to introduce himself, Derrell starts out with a casual, “Uh, whassup?” looks down at his talking points for a second, lets out a quick laugh, then goes for it.
“I’m Derrell Simpson. I’m running for president because I feel that there are decisions being made by school administrators and in these decisions they’re not putting Backus students first….If I’m elected president, I wanna make it so in the decisions being made—uh, Backus students are being put first, because as I said in my campaign fliers, it’s all about the students.”
He looks more relaxed. His leg doesn’t bounce as much. And when he talks, he sounds well-rehearsed but not stilted.
Derrell’s improvement doesn’t surprise anyone. Before the taping began, Ibijoke even griped privately that the second debate was solely for his benefit. All of the candidates act more nonchalant about the ordeal this time.
Derrell gets looser with each question. He starts to ad-lib a little and even throws in a couple of populist flourishes, such as “Point blank, school lunches were nasty!” And while explaining why students need more school dances, he says, “For real, for real, advisory [period] isn’t a good time to relax.”
During the crossfire part of the debate, Derrell follows Lawson’s advice to “never lose an opportunity to speak” by pelting his opponents with questions. Even when he lobs softballs—like “How would you inform students about what you’re doing?”—he comes off sounding as if he were the one in charge. By playing Charlie Rose, he also manages to escape any counterattacks. He sits back and watches while Kiana practically calls Ibijoke a hypocrite for promising better school lunches.
To wind up the debate, Nelson has the candidates make one final pitch to Backus voters. While the other candidates sputter responses such as “I can help,” and “I am a great leader for those who know,” Derrell sits up as if he’s been waiting to answer the question all day.
“Um, well,” he says. “You should vote for me because I have three years of leadership experience with the NAACP Youth Council as their community coordinator, a member of the mayor’s Youth Advisory Council, and director of the Kids Care Program, youth campaign adviser for Councilmember Vincent Orange, Ward 5, um, youth director of youth relations for Trinidad Concerned Citizens for Reform, and currently director of Youth Care Enterprises Incorporated.”
When he’s done, the other kids, who are hearing these credentials for the first time, all look slightly stunned.
“I’m-a close out,” Derrell says, locking eyes with the camera. “I’m-a close this out by saying there’s no replacement for experienced leadership.”
Derrell doesn’t get to wow anyone else with his performance in the second debate. The student body never sees it. Nelson can’t get the video system to play the footage. And Derrell doesn’t get to deliver his three-minute auditorium speech, either. The election-day-assembly is canceled after half of the school’s teachers end up snarled in traffic—the result of the manhunt for the D.C.-area sniper.
Derrell catches one major break, though. By the day of the vote, his nemesis, Kiana, isn’t there. She’s transferred out of Backus.
“Girls were always trying to make her fight,” says Derrell.
“You know how girls get jealous,” says homeroom teacher Patricia Buck. “Her mom thought she’d be safer at another school.”
Kiana’s vice president, Cherice, has moved to the top of the ticket, but it’s not the same. “With Kiana, I had a challenge,” Derrell says. “I liked that.”
Kiana’s name is already gone from the ballots that Buck hands out during advisory period. The students take about five minutes to mark one of the four names, fold their ballots, and hand them up to Buck. As soon as all the voting is finished, Derrell’s running mates start talking about throwing a victory party.
Derrell doesn’t join in, though. He paces the room with his hands in his pockets. Instead of feeling relieved, he’s all jitters. “I wish I had a chance to go around to every class and say something,” he says.
Later that day, at lunch, Derrell sits at his usual table. He brings his clipboard with him, piled high with campaign fliers. He also brings an iron-on transfer that he plans to use to make souvenir “Vote for Derrell” T-shirts. When one of the boys at his table spits bits of apple onto the transfer, Derrell retaliates by throwing a food tray at him. The two end up tussling. They’re immediately sent upstairs to the vice principal’s office.
Derrell has never been in a fight before. Even so, the vice principal gives him a two-day suspension. The other boy gets five days.
Derrell knows a suspension is a black mark on his record. He would probably be more upset about it if he weren’t still consumed by his campaign.
In his last period of the day—American History—he does his best to concentrate on writing out answers for an assignment on the settlement of the New World. He isn’t his usual self, though. He doesn’t laugh or smile much. “What if I win?” he says. “What if I lose? How will I handle it?”
Around 3 o’clock, just before the school day ends, Nelson sticks his head inside the history classroom and beckons Derrell into the hallway. Derrell is gone for a minute. When he walks back in he looks confused.
“Who won?” a student asks.
“Monique,” he replies, his voice full of disbelief.
Students are dumbfounded. “Oh my god!” someone gasps.
Nelson told Derrell that the election was close. Derrell won the eighth-grade vote, but Monique won most of the sixth and seventh grade.
Derrell slowly settles back down into his seat, puts his head in one hand, and bounces his pen on his notebook with the other. He sits quietly for the next few minutes, chewing on his lip. He’s thinking, he will say later, about a story that Pierpont Mobley’s wife, Jeanette Mobley, told him about the night John Ray lost the Democratic primary to Marion Barry in 1994. Mobley was Ray’s meet-and-greet coordinator, and she had fully expected the longtime councilmember to win. When he didn’t, she was crushed.
As soon as school ends, Derrell borrows a cell phone and dials up Pierpont Mobley. “I lost. I lost the race,” he says. “Yeah. I know….Me, too. I thought I had it. [Monique] didn’t even put a lot of effort into her campaign. I spent over $80 on this campaign!
“You know, I didn’t focus enough of my energy and time on the sixth- and seventh-graders. I should’ve done more for the sixth- and seventh-graders. They’re the ones I should’ve gotten the candy and lollipops!
“I tell you, man, Mr. Mobley,” he says more softly. “I felt like cryin’, but I’m not.”
When Catrice Simpson hears that Derrell was suspended, she doesn’t give him too much grief. She figures that his day couldn’t have turned out much worse.
The beef that started the fight quickly blows over. (Kervin takes credit for the detente.) After Derrell returns to school the following week, he and the boy he fought with make up, and they resume eating lunch together.
Upon his return, Derrell also learns that one of the other losing candidates, Cherice, has launched a challenge to the election result. (Monique won 118 votes, or 45 percent of the vote, and Derrell won 93 votes, or 36 percent, with the other two candidates splitting the rest.)
Derrell hears rumors that a teacher scratched out his name on some of the ballots. Nelson finds no evidence of tampered ballots, but he tells the students they can revote if they can get two-thirds of the school—or 383 students—to sign a petition in support of the idea. The candidates start to collect signatures, including Derrell and Kervin. Derrell keeps a few of his posters up. And he and Kervin get to work on “Vote for Derrell” T-shirts.
By mid-November, however, the petition effort runs aground. Though the students have gathered the required number of signatures, not all of them are valid because Nelson finds too many duplicate names. So the 2002 Backus student-government election officially comes to a close.
Derrell, who turned 14 earlier in the month, sounds a little wiser for the experience. “I’m glad I ran,” he says. “Running made people see the issues, the things that were wrong with the school. It made them stop and actually care not just about themselves, but others just for a minute.”
Derrell says he might run again for school office in 10th or 11th grade. Until then, he’s got his mind set on bigger game. “I heard that Ward 6 has a youth councilmember,” he says, adding that maybe Ward 5 ought to have one, too. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.