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It seemed like just another afternoon at school. As I looked out at my class that September day in 1999, I pondered how to engage them. I knew that unless I got my sixth-grade students excited about ancient Greece, they would look upon the unit as a boring lesson about a bunch of dead people in togas. So I launched into a passionate discourse about how ancient Greece established the first democracy, one that our founding fathers had looked to when establishing our government. After explaining the differences between America’s representative democracy and the Greek model of direct democracy, I moved on to the great Athenian general Pericles, who believed that if you don’t participate in your representative government, you have no place in society.
At the back of the class, Heather, a quiet brown-haired girl well respected by her classmates, raised her hand.
“Well, that may have been fine for the Greeks, Ms. Cahill,” she announced. “But you can’t run for office in this country unless you’re a millionaire or unless you know a lot of millionaires.”
Wow, she’s already figured that out at age twelve, I thought. How sad.
I, too, felt that if you’re not wealthy, you don’t really have a way to participate meaningfully in this country’s political system. But it wasn’t my role as a teacher to pass on my personal views.
“That’s not exactly true,” I countered. “All citizens in our country have the right to run for office. Would having a million dollars make things easier? I’m sure it would. But not having the money isn’t going to prevent someone from being able to run.”
I became so wrapped up in cheerleading for democracy, I neglected to think three steps ahead. I should have seen the next comment coming. Sixth graders are renowned for daring each other.
“Well, then, why don’t you prove it, Ms. Cahill?” Heather challenged. “Why don’t you run for office? You’re a fair person, you’re funny, you’d be great.”
After a moment of uncomfortable silence during which I couldn’t manage to spit out an answer, the rest of the class took up the idea and added their voices to Heather’s. “Yeah!” and “Why don’t you?” and “That’d be awesome!” rose up from the students like a wave.
Are you kidding me? I thought in a panic.
Of course, Heather was showing the kind of initiative I tried so hard to encourage. Just a month into the school year, my new students had already started to take over the classroom walls. My classroom was always bare at the beginning of the year with the exception of a few of my favorite posters, including the one that reads “You Can Change the World” and my “Cahill Hall of Fame” banner that always adorns a bulletin board. But now their art and writing projects enriched the space. Montages they had made about themselves hung from the ceiling over their desks. Butcher paper for ever-changing murals spanned the length of the back wall above the bright yellow countertops and kids’ cubbyholes. “Your class would be about the worst place in the world for ADD kids,” joked a friend of mine who’s also a teacher. “They would never be able to pay attention to anything because there’s so much stuff hanging everywhere.” But I preferred an interactive room, where children learned through immersion.
I also worked to make it a democratic place. I believe in giving students choices. If I’m going to make students come up with a project to show me that they understand a math concept, they always have options because I know that kids—like the rest of us—have different learning styles. Not every person is an auditory learner. Some are visual, while others—including the one out of every ten or twelve who is ADD—are kinesthetic. You’ve got to be able to let them learn in ways that are going to make sense to them.
Unfortunately, many teachers will teach the way they learn best and most teachers are school nerds. We were usually the ones who sat in the front row because we wanted to be “the good students.” We liked school because we did school very well. That’s why we came back as adults; we get the game. But not everybody does. So as a teacher, I vary my approach to—and presentation of—the material in order to reach all these different kids because only about 20 percent of them learn the way I do. Students should be encouraged to do their best, not to fit into a mold that may not be suited to them.
I also want my kids to be able to speak up and talk to me about how they feel. If they don’t like the way our spelling test is conducted, they have to explain why.
“I don’t mind if you have a problem, but come to me with a solution, too,” I say. “If you have a better way of doing things, that’s fine, tell me. But if you’re just coming to complain, I don’t want to hear it.”
This was especially important when it came to my sixth graders’ social interactions on the playground. There was often drama after lunch recess, and they needed to learn how to be problem solvers, not whiners.
My students quickly became very vocal little people who excelled at giving one another feedback and thinking for themselves. We were a community of learners. I loved that. I also loved the fact that Heather had challenged my statement. But now I owed them an answer.
Looking at twenty-eight intent faces, I knew that I had just been handed a test. Would this grown-up be as contradictory and hypocritical as so many of the adults and personalities in their lives? If our country worked the way I had said it did, and if normal people could—and should—be involved in government, then as their teacher I shouldn’t have a problem stepping up to do what they’d asked. It was as if they were saying, “Either you are what you say you are and you believe that whole line you gave us, or you’re totally full of crap, and we’re going to find out right now.” In many ways, our roles of teacher and pupil had suddenly switched.
What I say is really going to matter, and I’d better think fast, I realized.
Thoughts rocketed through my brain like simultaneous fireworks explosions.
Oh my god, what have I gotten myself into?
Do I believe what I told them? Or am I simply a mouthpiece for the establishment? Are these kids going to look back and resent me someday when they think about their teacher’s rosy, half-honest introduction to politics?
How the hell can I run for office? I’m a divorced mom with three little kids. I have no money. I don’t even own a house.
If I say no, will that prove their worst suspicions about people and the world around them?
This is crazy. I have no time, no influence, and absolutely no political connections. The only Kennedy I’m in good with is my daughter Kennedy.
This could be the best civics lesson ever!
Geez, what would my principal say?
There’s no way I can do this.
This would be so cool for the kids! Why can’t I do it?
How many adults whom these kids look up to wind up disappointing them? I don’t want to be one of them.
Maybe she’s right; maybe I should run.
As I looked at Heather’s face, I realized that we ask children all the time to be brave. We ask them to be leaders, to say no to peer pressure, to turn down drugs, to step away from the crowd, and to be unafraid to take on challenges. We’re really good at expecting that kind of courage from children, but how often do they see adults step up? How often do we actually model that you can do or be anything you want in life?
I had to buy myself some time. Smiling to hide my terror, I asked the kids for twenty-four hours, explaining that I needed to sleep on it since the decision would impact not only me but also my family.
“I knew she wouldn’t do it,” I heard a boy mutter.
Don’t say I won’t do something, a small voice inside me said. Any time I’m told I won’t—or can’t—do something, a huge, ornery part of me answers, Oh really? Wanna bet?
Obstinacy is part of me. My dad, an engineer, probably fostered that beast. When I was little, he pushed me to be athletic and outgoing, to climb trees, to work on cars. I can remember him teaching me how to play with gears, do woodworking, and build things. He pressed me to not get pigeonholed into typical female roles, and he treated me more like a boy than his little girl. Even though my parents had divorced by the time I was a teenager, both he and my mother demanded that I pursue a college education so I’d always be able to take care of myself and be independent—they never wanted me to need a man. I love them for that.
We grew up without TV; my father did not want our brains turned to mush. He preferred that we spend our time reading, playing outside, or doing something else of value. At dinner, we sat and actually had discussions, ones in which you were expected to have an opinion. And you had better be able to defend it.
My parents were basically hippies who ate organic and never kept white flour or white sugar in the house. They had walked for McGovern and made buttons for him out of leather, and they had supported Cesar Chavez. My midwestern father’s political evolution took place in the navy while stationed at Treasure Island just off of San Francisco. My mother owed her liberal politics in part to her own parents, who believed that the nation’s direction is determined by its leadership and that the Republicans would prove the demise of this country. In my maternal grandmother’s front room, a huge picture of the pope on one side of the mantel was balanced by an even larger picture of JFK on the other. The family joke was that if you didn’t become a nun or marry a Kennedy, you had to go into public service and do something meaningful with your life that would give back to society.
Grandma’s compassionate outlook, however, did not extend to Republicans, whom she believed to be basically evil to the core (or simply outright stupid), selfish, and mean-spirited. She particularly despised Ronald Reagan. My grandfather, a drummer in the swing era who once met Ella Fitzgerald, had known him from college and thought he was a womanizing drunk. My grandma simply called him a rotten son of a bitch.
The older she got, the more cantankerous she became. I was in eighth grade when Reagan was shot. I can remember being sent home from school that day. Even though he was not on the list of heroes I had been taught to admire, I still felt reverence for the presidency and concern for President Reagan and his family. As soon as I walked into my grandma’s house after getting off the bus, I announced, “Grandma! The President’s been shot!” She angrily fired back, “If I had shot him, at least I would have made sure to kill the rotten son of a bitch!”
“Grandma, my god!” I yelped. “Monsignor would not approve of all that hatred. And isn’t it illegal to threaten to kill the President?”
My words did nothing to lessen her hatred of Reagan in particular and Republicans in general. They stood squarely against her beliefs that as a country we had an ethical duty and a responsibility to care for those less fortunate. She felt that a country’s true character was proven by how the poor, elderly, and those too weak to care for themselves were treated within that society. And since I grew up with the blessing of “grandma care” rather than daycare, those attitudes rubbed off on me.
My grandparents lived what they preached. They cared for my great-grandmother in her eighties, my great-aunt in her late seventies, and their own grown daughter after a terrible car accident cost her a leg and left her with permanent severe brain damage. All three of their charges were in wheelchairs. Then they took in and raised their five- and seven-year-old grandchildren, who had been in the car accident with their mother and suffered horrible trauma. With my parents divorcing, they also took care of my sister and me every day while our mother worked.
In my eyes, Grandma and Grandpa were saints. They never complained about the situation they were in, although I know they suffered through many difficult days and nights. I can remember watching my grandpa seated at his card table working on a jigsaw puzzle and chewing on his cigar. Monsignor Gallagher would come to the house to give mass to all of the people in wheelchairs. Grandma would eagerly serve him coffee, and Grandpa would encourage him to tell stories because they loved to hear his Irish accent. Every now and then Grandpa would mention that this was not the postretirement life he had anticipated. He had wanted to take my grandma on a trip to New England to see the fall colors and to visit historic places he’d read about. But then the accident happened and four generations of people were now struggling to live together.
Though I came from a very progressive family, I wasn’t prepared for the diversity I encountered in college. When my dad drove me from our home in Reno, Nevada, to the University of New Mexico, which is one-third Anglo, one-third Hispanic, and one-third Native American, one of the football players hanging out by the dorm greeted me with, “Yo baby, what’s happenin’? What’s your name?”
Unnerved, I snapped, “What? Don’t ‘Yo baby’ me. I don’t know you. Who do you think you are, talking to me like that?”
He and his buddies cracked up at this white girl so obviously from a hick town. Though I was annoyed by the forwardness of his greeting, I was equally embarrassed by my reaction, which had been triggered by discomfort.
Living in the dorms was like being in the United Nations, and the more I heard about my fellow students’ experiences growing up in places like Detroit, Los Angeles, and New York, the more I realized that they came from a world I had never experienced. My grandparents were poor Irish Catho- lics. They talked to me endlessly about not being able to get jobs, being called cat-lickers (a derogatory slang term for Roman Catholics), and having rocks thrown at them while growing up in Des Moines, Iowa. Grandpa had had a cross burned on his lawn. In the Midwest during those years, people hated the Catholics as much as they hated the Irish, and they hated the Irish Catholics most of all. “You better be proud about who you are because we fought long and hard to assimilate into this country,” my grandparents insisted. Until I got to college, however, I never considered what it must be like for people who couldn’t assimilate because of race.
Active in campus politics from the start, I soon joined the Black student union. Admittedly that was a weird choice for a white girl, but a class in African-American history had spun my head. We learned that the industrial revolution and southern agricultural wealth never would have materialized without free labor from African Americans. Lectures and the course text Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America by Lerone Bennett Jr. also chronicled groundbreaking African-American accomplishments I had never heard of—accomplishments that had proven critical to the development and evolution of the country. I can remember thinking, Wait a minute—I took tons of history classes in high school and read anything I could get my hands on, and I don’t remember hearing any of this. I actually confronted my professor one day at the end of class.
“Either you are lying or my textbooks lied to me all through school.”
Dr. Cortez Williams just laughed at me.
I began reexamining everything in my life. Much of what I’d taken for granted no longer seemed fair. I had attended Reno High, a U.S. Department of Education Blue Ribbon School that was also listed among the nation’s top high schools. I had assumed that most schools were like mine, only to learn from books like Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools about the dilapidated condition of many inner-city schools, where ceilings leaked, toilets didn’t work, and supplies were nonexistent. How did we expect the students in those schools to feel—and act—like valued members of society when every nonverbal message said that they weren’t? What message did we convey when those same children took buses to faraway schools to compete athletically, where they saw beautiful facilities where everything worked and, which, by the way, were predominantly white?
When I started dating my future husband, Lamont, a charismatic, caramel-skinned African American from the inner city who didn’t smoke or drink and who has still never touched a drug, all those issues of race and class became part of my life. If he was going to get pulled over and harassed by police, I would be in that car. In addition, I could now penetrate African-American society. Dinner parties and bridal showers provided me a firsthand view into an amazingly rich and layered culture that I was totally unfamiliar with. I learned to admire a great deal about African-American families: the way they use humor to deal with sadness or disappointment, the way women band together and support each other, the huge extended families. Sure, I saw some black males (along with many in the white community) struggling with alcohol and other drugs. When they couldn’t get a job, some of those guys did things that weren’t good for them. Still, I began to pay especially close attention to the media’s disturbing portrayal of black men as an endangered species, because I certainly didn’t want that sentence for the man I already knew I would marry or for any sons we might have.
Yearning for a way to impact a world that I increasingly saw as inequitable, I considered going into civil rights law. Finally Dr. Williams, the professor I had challenged and to whom I had grown quite close, said, “As a civil rights attorney, you’ll be reacting to situations that have already happened. You won’t help change anything. Since you obviously don’t care about making a lot of money [civil rights law not being known for bringing in massive earnings], why don’t you think about becoming a teacher?”
Upon reflection, I realized that instead of helping a few people each year by asking the court to uphold the law, I’d be able to reach a class of thirty kids annually. Perhaps by teaching them to be more tolerant and to recognize and appreciate the differences among all of us, I could make things better. Being proactive and preventing tragedy, rather than dwelling on it, struck me as a much more positive way to live my life. So I decided to teach.
Lamont and I married directly out of college and had a son right away, which nixed our dreams of getting into the Peace Corps. Instead, in the fall of 1990, we moved to West Covina, California, to work in the inner city. Lamont took a job counseling kids in the juvenile justice system in La Verne. He would help them with everything from communication skills to how to present themselves outside the ghetto. I taught a combined kindergarten/first-grade class at a private school in Compton, where I was the only white teacher they’d ever had.
I had never been the “only one” before. I had never walked into a restaurant and had people scrutinize me up and down with that “Hmm, who does she think she is?” look or gone into a department store that had no white people in it. I had never been targeted with overt racism, and I still smart over a mother who marched her kid out of my classroom and to the principal, announcing, “That white bitch will not be teaching my child—you find another room for him.” It made me better understand what my then- husband experienced daily. But I hated living in Los Angeles and couldn’t wait to get back to a smaller, less-congested, and less-polluted town. I didn’t want to raise my infant son in a place that I felt was systemically unhealthy.
The following year, we returned to New Mexico and bought a 2,500-square-foot, four-bedroom house. Lamont took a job teaching social skills to—and running employability workshops for—Job Corps teenagers and I opened a preschool. Just three years later our marriage failed, and I made the decision to leave my successful preschool business and return to Reno with our children, including our newborn, to care for my father, who was dying of cancer. I was devastated that my marriage hadn’t worked out; running home felt safe. I figured that Reno would be a nurturing community in which to raise my kids. Besides, I owed it to my father, a wild man who lived by the seat of his pants and whom I adored. I had chosen to live with him during my teenage years after he and my mom divorced, so this man who had given up being an engineer to run his own organic barbecue restaurant had basically raised me.
My dad died before I had actually managed to relocate, but I moved anyway. The decision was very emotional and equally illogical, since I hadn’t found a job and missed my old work life. My preschool provided a wonderfully crea- tive outlet where I could teach in a way that was educationally valuable and socially responsible. Each month’s theme reflected the multicultural background of my diverse clientele, so we learned about Native American, Jewish, African, and Hispanic art, food, stories, and music. The preschool, which was quite profitable, was popular among those doctors, lawyers, and professors who wanted their kids to learn about many different backgrounds in an environment where their own culture would be honored. Had I stayed, I would have expanded the program and taken in more students. But I wanted to walk away from everything that had gone wrong in New Mexico and find a new life.
I knew I would be fine in Reno. And I was right. Though my father’s will giving me his house was successfully disputed in court by his wife, despite their ongoing divorce proceedings during his illness, I secured a teaching job with a single e-mail to a school principal. I would teach kindergarten at a private Christian school. And while $8 an hour would be difficult to live on, the school agreed to pay me to do my student teaching that fall as long as I promised to stay for the whole year. I was fortunate to have fallen into such an arrangement, although I had a hard time being surrounded by “good Christians” who were so politically conservative. Those two characteristics seemed so diametrically opposed. The disdain for Catholics was equally difficult to take, but I needed the work so I tried to keep my mouth shut as much as possible.
Though my husband probably would have preferred to stay in New Mexico, he moved to Reno as well so that we could share custody of our three children. The arrangement was ideal, since I saw his tremendous involvement with our children as essential for their emotional development. Joint custody, however, meant no child support, since we each had the kids half the time. We split the doctors’ bills, but otherwise we were responsible for our own expenses. My solution—to work a second and third job once I landed a teaching position in a public school—cost me physically, but I needed the money. I was willing to trade sleep for a safety net that, even at the best of times, could barely hold me and my children.
Accepting my class’s dare to run for office could rip a gaping hole in that net. Running for public office would inevitably compound my overloaded schedule. But I approached teaching with a sense of tremendous responsibility, and too much was at stake not to seriously consider the proposition.
I realized that this was one of those defining challenges that life throws our way. Driving home from school the day my students dropped their bombshell, I tried to talk it over with my kids—O’Keeffe, then 5, Kennedy, 6, and Kelton, 9—since a decision to run would affect them too. I figured that I might encourage more discussion if I broached the topic informally in the car, rather than convening a family meeting at home.
“What would you think if I ran for office?” I asked.
They were so young, they weren’t even sure what running for office meant.
“Well, you know what the president is, and you know what an election is. What would you think if I did that?”
They didn’t react at first. They still didn’t understand. Eventually, they would decide that living in the White House once I was elected president would be awesome. I never even tried to set them straight.
That night, I continued to wrestle with myself. I worried about mudslinging and how “dirty” politics might affect me, my family, and my school. But mostly I worried about where I’d find the time. To make ends meet, I was already working three nights a week as a cocktail waitress at a local Irish pub, while high school kids babysat my children or the kids were with my ex. I went in at six and worked until 2 a.m. Some nights I didn’t get home until four in the morning. After only a couple hours of sleep, I headed back to the classroom ready to drop. Still, on good nights I came home with as much as $150. Over the course of the year, that meant an additional five or six grand. Selling real estate on the occasional weekend added another three to seven thousand a year if I was lucky. That was how we got by.
I had every reason to decline my students’ challenge. Still, I was drawn to the project. We teachers talk about edu-cation needing to be more real-world, so kids absorb what they’re being taught. Instead of solely teaching them math facts with “kill-and-drill” worksheets that focus so much on repetition they extinguish all enthusiasm for learning, for example, you have them build a birdhouse where they actually have to measure and calculate angles. Studies on best practices for classroom instruction have repeatedly said that it’s imperative for students to find relevance in their curriculum. So how about running a political campaign? That’s pretty darn authentic and could be made extremely pertinent.
I also considered what Heather had said. Maybe she’s right, I thought. Maybe we do need working-class folks to run for office, because I can’t think of any elected officials with that kind of background. What if the check-out gal at the grocery store ran for office? What if my mailman ran? How great would that be?
My dad used to talk about how to bring the common man into government. “I wish political office was more like the jury system,” he’d say. “What if instead of the elitists running this country trying to pretend that they know how we’re living, you got a notice in the mail that said, ‘As part of this society, it’s your turn to serve two years in the House of Representatives. Housing in Washington will be provided.’ ” Wow, that would shake things up!
Wasn’t that how this country was supposed to be run? Yet even the political leaders who started this country came from the privileged class. Thomas Jefferson, with his slaves in Monticello, wasn’t exactly down with the people. Our country has never lived up to being “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” The idea of running a true grassroots campaign was appealing. And though naïve, I was rash enough to think that I could do it.
My boyfriend at the time—a charming, good-looking man with green eyes, a chiseled nose and chin, and a mean streak when he drank, which was often—disagreed with me.
“That sounds ridiculous,” Derrick said over the phone. “I hope you’re not really going to do that. You’ll only embarrass yourself.”
Okay, honey, thanks for the support, I thought to myself, unaware that I would soon face a number of increasingly vicious comments about me, my children, and my political aspirations. In my home, Kelton, Kennedy, and O’Keeffe know that there are ways to argue fairly, and unwritten relationship rules that you don’t violate with verbal attacks. That’s how I was raised, and I made sure to bring up my children the same way. Derrick understood none of those boundaries.
I hadn’t seen his ugly side during the first year we dated. He took me on trips to Mexico and Hawaii. Being so destitute, it felt good to have a man nineteen years my senior spoil me with gifts, dinners, and attention. He was very outdoorsy like my dad, who had hunted and fished, and I liked that as well. And having worked for years in the federal court system as a judge’s clerk, he hung out with people like the mayor of Las Vegas. I was impressed by who he knew, as well as how many people he knew.
The first time he blew up at me over dinner and margaritas during a fishing trip, I slept on the hotel floor and refused to talk to him for days after we got back home. “I’m so sorry. I guess I drank too much,” he said. “I shouldn’t talk to you that way.” Eventually, ongoing apologies and flowers convinced me to go out to dinner with him. Another few dinners and we were seeing each other again.
I didn’t know it then, but a pattern had been established. We would have a good time until the next blowup, which once he was sober was always followed by tender apologies about how he would understand if I left because he knew I deserved better. Part of me thought I could fix him and change this dynamic. And after being stuck at home raising three little kids on no money, his on-the-go lifestyle seemed like an escape from my depressing post-divorce sentence. He knew many prestigious people so we went to lots of swanky events. After working so hard and barely making it, having fun was a pleasure, even if I had to pay the price now and then when he got drunk.
By the time I had seen the full extent of his vile temper and habits, getting away from him was like getting out of a bowl of spaghetti. He owned the house I rented. His name was on my car loan. “I’ll take your fucking car,” he threatened when I talked about leaving. “Then how will you drive those kids around?” It would take a year and a half of planning to finally extricate myself from the relationship four years later.
Still, by 1999 I was already used to his degradation. If anything, his reaction cemented a decision I didn’t even know I had made.
Of course, I couldn’t make a move without my princi- pal’s consent. I called her that night. I liked—and deeply respected—Penny LaBranch. She was middle class and proud of it, yet she exuded class and dignity. She drove a ’57 Chevy with a license plate that read “57 Lady.” Her husband, a mechanic, owned his own garage and Penny handled his bookkeeping. Unlike other administrators, she seemed real to me. If I had a meeting with parents who made excuses for their child’s behavior instead of holding the kid accountable, she smiled and put on a show for them. But as soon as they left, she’d say, “Shut the door.” Once the door was safely closed, she would ask, “Was that the biggest load of crap you ever heard in your life?” And I would crack up. She always backed her teachers, and she believed in us. But she was demanding because she wanted the best for the children in her school. If we teachers weren’t doing the right thing for the students, look out!
Penny could be difficult to work for, but I knew she would never ask me to do something she wasn’t willing to do herself. She even showed up at school every now and then in shorts and a T-shirt to weed the flower beds or wipe down tables in the cafeteria. Nor was it unusual to see her picking up trash on the playground. Some instructors thought she expected too much of teachers. I even heard of a few who were terrified to interview with her because they had heard that before the interview she would go out to the parking lot and look in their car to see if they were neat. The rumor wasn’t true, but it was funny.
Penny was less supportive than usual over the course of this conversation.
“I don’t know, Tierney. You know there’s this huge push to meet the state standards. You have to teach to the test and address those standards in the curriculum. We’re all under the gun here, administrators and teachers. We both know that’s not good teaching. It’s horseshit. But that’s the direction things are going.”
On the other end of the line, I heard what I’m sure were ice cubes clinking in a glass.
“How’s this going to look?” she asked.
I couldn’t answer her because the same thought had crossed my mind. I knew I was going to agree to run because of the project’s enormous educational value and because I didn’t want kids to throw in the towel at age twelve. They were already resigned to the notion that unless your dad is a Kennedy or a Bush, you’re screwed; you might as well give up and get a job at Wal-Mart. If I had to be the instrument to prove that assumption wrong, I was good with that.
“So how do we do this and not get you in trouble?” she finally asked.
I could tell that she had come around and that she wouldn’t oppose my decision to run. Though we didn’t manage to answer her question that evening, I knew I had her in my corner.
With Penny’s tacit agreement still echoing in the phone, I called my mom, who made it clear that she thought my running for office was yet ano