“You should be impeached,” Mr. Severns said as we walked through the gym where only a straggling of students half-heartedly danced to the band on stage. Severns, a thin-haired man with dark thick glasses, was the senior boys’ Advisor Chairman at my high school – a giant high school of wealth and privilege on Chicago’s North Shore. I was the senior class president, the first female senior class president ever in this well-known high school’s eighty-some years of existence, and my advisor told me I should be impeached. I was seventeen.
The Senior Class Steering Committee and I had organized a fall event, a concert to raise money for the end of the year graduation party and a senior class gift. The band was The Buckinghams, a band known probably mostly for one song, “Kind of a Drag,” which, only a few months into my term, I thought described my presidency quite well. The year before, the senior class president scored Otis Day and the Nights, the actual band whose song “Shout!” was made famous by John Belushi and all his frat buddies in Animal House. For that dance, the gymnasium was packed and they raised a zillion dollars. We, on the other hand, lost money that night. After Severns told me I should be impeached, I cowered up in the stands with my senior class vice-president, a gentle guy, who hugged me and felt terrible, too, as we watched our student class funds fly out the door with The Buckinghams’ paycheck.
Growing up in the manicured suburbs where big leafy oaks and chestnut trees line brick-paved streets, life was good. I suffered little hardship. My parents and lots of other adults told me I could be whatever I wanted to be. And I wanted to be many things – a veterinarian, a cartoonist, a poet, a teacher, a professional basketball player, and a heart surgeon. I don’t remember even thinking I’d need to pick – I could do it all. I had ambition and drive like a lot of kids do where I grew up – kids with privilege get to have the American Dream.
My parents are both artists born to immigrant families at the beginning of WWII. What they remember about their childhoods was ration books, crowded apartments, and bomb shelters. They grew up in Chicago and didn’t go to college. They moved to the North Shore because they wanted their offspring to have better a better education and more opportunities than they’d had. They were part of the generation that grew up caught between June Cleaver and Janis Joplin. For them, the American Dream still existed.
I came of age in the 1980s. I remember watching on our kitchen TV Ronald Reagan’s inauguration, which happened on the very same day the Iran hostages were released. This was the era when Star Wars the movie had become Star Wars: The Defense Program and “The Me Generation” reigned supreme. I never once thought there were things I couldn’t have or do just because I was a girl, though, by high school, I’d figured out that “guy things”, like ambition and power, were more revered, so I stopped practicing my flute and started running for student government positions. When I decided to run for senior class president, I ran a tough campaign in a tight race between myself and another boy. We plastered our posters and gave speeches about why we should be elected. I edged that boy out and I won. I felt invincible.
My mother would never call herself a feminist because the word, she would say, “sounded too harsh,” but nevertheless during my senior year, whenever she introduced me at social events, she often would say, “This is my daughter, Madame President,” and then rattle off the statistic how I was the first female senior class president in our high school’s history, like that as the most important thing. For me, the biggest deal about being senior class president was that I gave the speech at graduation, which, because our school was so big, I gave it twice at two different ceremonies, each in front of about four thousand people. My first day of senior year, I felt so nervous, I threw up in the garbage can in my bedroom.
After the fall dance, however, I began to wonder if Mr. Severns said that to me because I was a girl. Why didn’t he tell the male VP he should be impeached, too? Had he ever said that to any of the male presidents before me? I was hurt and angry and now, because the presidency also demanded the typically-deemed masculine leadership and decision making skills, I doubted my abilities. Maybe I couldn’t be all those things I wanted to be. Maybe I’d never be important.
I had a mentor in Mrs. Juneau – a towering woman with blonde hair styled like a school-marm. She was a Director of Students Services, only one of two women in the school’s high administrative positions, and she encouraged me to stick with the presidency. She also helped the steering committee and I, organize other fundraisers to make up for our losses. By the spring, we’d planned and hosted a few other events, most notably a boys’ mock beauty pageant where the guys had to show off their talents, answer questions about world affairs, and showcase themselves in their bathing suits. That event drew a huge crowd, and we ended up with a generous amount of money by the end of the year, around ten thousand dollars, which was a lot for 1987.
The Senior Class Steering committee was supposed to decide how to spend the money – like buy a new bench for the school rotunda, or gift the school with a new tennis court. I asked my peers what to do with all the money. No one had an answer; everyone had contracted senioritis and apathy, including me. I remember sitting on a table top on a warm late spring day, looking at my bored fellow students and knowing I was the one who would have to be the leader and decide where the money would go.
I know I’m lucky my parents told me I could be anything I wanted, and lucky they struggled to pay taxes in an area where I received an excellent education. I’m glad my mom and I have a good enough relationship that she admits now to being “naïve” about the fact that some people might not have wanted me to do certain things, like be the president, just because I am a girl. I’m lucky Ms. Juneau stepped up and helped me. But, ultimately, Mr. Severns’ comment to me was the catalyst that allowed me to connect dots about how not everyone can be or do what they want in America, certainly not in the “all men are created equal” sense that catapulted forward the ideal of the American Dream. Indeed, “all men” did not include many citizens of the United States, like black people or women who died trying to obtain the vote, and in my final months of senior year, I started to feel anger about injustice that had been right in front of me for all four years: the racist comment my basketball buddy made about my first boyfriend, a Jamaican-American (“how’s blackie?” she’d mock); the disparity of housing and school quality differed greatly from where I grew up in Wilmette to the college I attended in Evanston just a few miles south. Some kids at our school still got called “kike”, and girls were called “bitches” all the time, especially by other girls. Kids said “fag” without awareness of how faggot came to be a word disparaging gay men (my history teacher claimed the origin came from Hitler’s reign when he murdered, buried, and burned stacks of gay men like bundles of sticks, or faggots); kids just as often used words like “retard” and “spaz” with little thought of who else might be around. In English class, I’d read Langston Hughes’ poem that asked what happened to a dream deferred, and saw The Great Gatsby dead in his swimming pool surrounded by overconsumption. I’d read about massacres of Native Americans and portions of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. The reality of class, race, gender, religious, age, ability, environmental and, even, global inequities dawned clearer for me as news broke out that President Reagan and his staff were illegally manufacturing and selling arms to Iran. That revered president would never be impeached.
When I showed the first draft of my graduation speech to Mrs. Juneau, she read it intently, but then handed it back to me. “This doesn’t sound like you, Nancy. It sounds like all the boys who’ve gone before you. What do you really want to say?” she asked me. I realized I had a choice, try to keep being what I thought was important, or be myself? What kind of president would I be?
On graduation day, I walked down the aisle of the gym, the same one we’d held events in all year, with the VP as my escort. I wore a white dress, and, like all the other girls, I carried a half-dozen red roses. People were everywhere, every seat filled on the floor of the gym and in the stands, and when it was time, I walked past Mrs. Juneau and Mr. Severns. I stood at the podium, my voice shaky, and spoke about how high school taught me what mattered most in our lives were loving relationships, with ourselves, with our families and friends, and with people who had less opportunities than we did. I said those of us who were lucky had the responsibility to pass on what we had and then I informed the audience that our graduating class of 1987 gave money to the newly formed Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. I entered college a feminist and I’ve worked in some capacity for equity and justice almost every day of my twenty-eight years since. Thanks, Mr. Severns, for telling me I should be impeached.
Nancy Slavin is a long-time English literature, creative and composition writing instructor at a small rural community college in Oregon as well as an educator for a non-profit working to end oppression and violence against women. Her novel, Moorings, was published in 2013 by Feather Mountain Press, and more of her work can be found in Rain Magazine, Barrelhouse, hip mama, Literary Mama, and Oregon Humanities Magazine. Nancy has lived on the north Oregon coast for over twenty years. Her website is www.nancyslavin.com.