I can’t help but watch with nervous empathy as one of my least favorite parts of the school year approaches. For most students, the next two weeks of March are nerve-filled weeks around school as kids anxiously watch their March Madness bracket fall to pieces after a big upset. But for Head Prefect candidates, the month is much more nerve-racking because the grueling yet inevitable Prefect elections process begins. The experience of serving on Prefect Council this year has been fantastic and absolutely worthwhile. But much like wind sprints after lacrosse practices and trips to the dentist, the long term gain can only be gained through some short term pain.
The challenge of the process is two-fold. The first is the obvious anticipation of the results. It’s almost impossible to focus on anything else the entire day when you know the fate of your candidacy will be announced at 3:00 in Father J. Young’s office. But the even greater challenge is the speech process.
Not only do candidates have to stand before a rowdy and judgmental group of classmates, but they have to figure out how to fill 90 second intervals with some sort of meaningful rhetoric on why each candidate is willing to put themselves through such misery for 90 seconds.
I vividly remember the identity crisis running through my head last year as I stood on the Rugby Auditorium stage before my classmates during Senior Prefect elections when I was asked what distinguished myself from the other candidates.
“Well, I’m 6’3, so I can hang lights and decorations onto tall objections for dances. I have a loud voice, so I can project announcements well in class meetings. And I work for the Chronicle so I can leak all of PC’s secrets to the school paper…?”
I didn’t actually say any of that, but certainly thought about it. The point is that it’s very difficult to figure out what distinguishes each candidate from each other in Prefect elections. There’s not that much that can be fixed about that, it’s just the nature of the election process.
One could argue that most politicians are all the same and don’t really stand for anything. But they at least can identify themselves with political parties or stances on issues. For Prefects, there aren’t as many divisive issues at the school on which to take a stand. There are qualities that make people better candidates from others like enthusiasm, honesty and dedication amongst other things. But not only are these the kind of qualities that a lot of Harvard-Westlake students have, but it’s also very hard to find those qualities in a person in a minute long speech. Personality and character are some things you notice in someone after going to school with that person for several years, not after one conversation.
One thing that I think does help distinguish Prefect candidates is experience. Obviously, it helps to know how to organize a dance having done it before, and it’s especially helpful to be able to take the feedback from a past dance going forward into the next dance. The same is true on the Honor Board side, where it’s much easier to keep precedents from prior cases consistent if the same people are working on the new cases. Additionally, for bigger events like Prom, it takes more than a year to plan it properly.
But for whatever reason, all three times I ran for student council as a non-incumbent, I won, and both times I ran for reelection after winning the year before, I lost. Thank goodness I’m graduating this June and can sit and watch the underclassmen elections without having to run again.
I think I’m an exaggerated example, but I would still say in general, incumbents don’t win as often as I think they should. I think that either links back to the perception that Prefect Council doesn’t do anything significant or a lack of transparency about what we do.
As the elections approach, the seniors and advisors have been fiddling with ways to try to improve the process.
I’ve wondered if Prefect Council would be more effective if incumbents didn’t have to run for reelections every year and if members elected in 10th grade served until they graduated, but I think there is definitely some value in bringing new people and new ideas to the group even if it does result in some on the job training for the new guys. This isn’t a very realistic suggestion and is really just me venting my bitter frustration about losing in seventh grade (I was a fragile kid at 13! I shouldn’t have had to go through that heartbreak so young!).
Public speaking is an important part of the process. A candidate needs to show that he or she can stand before the class confidently if he or she is to be the representative of the class at Ring Ceremony, faculty meetings and in everyday life at the school. But this year, we’re thinking about asking more open ended questions to really push candidates to bring specific ideas into the discussion during speeches. We hope that it gives the incumbents the chance to show what they’ve really done this year and give non-incumbents a chance to really show what new ideas they would bring to the table.
Lastly, I know this column may have sounded like a lot of whining about how hard the process is for candidates, but it really is worthwhile. I think in some ways, the struggle of the election and reelection process is one of the most valuable experience for candidates to go through. Sure, it sucks to have to give a speech before all your friends when you have no idea what to say, and it really sucks to spend an entire year trying to plan fun events for the students then see that none of the student body actually enjoyed it. But I feel better about speaking in public and more prepared to handle setbacks in life from the experience. As the great Kelly Clarkson would put it, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Especially given the recent loss in our community, I realize that those things I just called “setbacks” in my high school experience are so minor in the grand scheme of things.
So I hope you guys take note of what’s said during the speeches and put some thought into who you vote for. It’s not the biggest juncture in a candidate’s life, but it certainly is a challenging process and a little sympathy from the student body goes a long way. And of course, make sure you hide your backpack the day of Head Prefect elections, because us seniors will definitely have a good prank up our sleeves.