Whoever said that high school was not a microcosm of life had never participated in Grant High School Student Government.
While in many cases, GH senior Lincoln Holmes liked to believe that high schoolers possessed more maturity than 95 percent of politicians. Sadly, Grant’s reigning body had chosen to see them as role models and follow their less-than-civic example. The past two school years, their motto seemed to become “Why take up issues of merit when you can make issues of trending topics?” Not catchy, she knew, but accurate nonetheless.
Rather than addressing inadequate parking space for students despite $100 permits, or no one knowing the freaking difference between recycling and trash, Grant High School Student Government had become a lightning rod of ridiculousness: insinuations of cafeteria ‘wokeness’ after the installation of a salad bar; the conundrum of whether graffiti ass cheeks spray painted on school windows should count as art and not chemically removed; rumors of students identifying as cats and asking for litter boxes in their classrooms. The complete stupidity stunned Lincoln on a daily basis.
But, since she had four months, three weeks, and four days left before she crossed that makeshift gymnasium stage, she was going to try to use that time to create some change at GH. Not that she had been able to do anything meaningful in the past three years, but her dad had raised no quitter. Technically, whether he raised her at all was up for debate, but that was a different topic for a different time.
On the second Tuesday of January, Lincoln came to the Student Government Office prepared, copies of her report still hot in her hands from the library printer, her laptop tucked into a pleather messenger bag and queued up to document just in case she needed a backup. Another sign of her readiness was the clock’s big hand hovering just below the nine: 3:43. Two minutes until people could begin filing in for the meeting.
Most people didn’t see the value in arriving early, but to Lincoln, it showed as bright as a neon sign at homecoming: to be the first in the door meant to be first on the list to speak and not bogged down in the meaningless minutiae of culture wars. She and the council, in her opinion, had bigger fish to fry.
The clock struck 3:45, but it took another two minutes for one of the members, Treasurer Jai Alexander-Webber, to unlock the door. As Jai turned the key in the lock, he gave Lincoln a once over that screamed “aren’t you a little much?” Lincoln smiled and held the papers closer to her chest. It was not the first time she received such a look, especially not from a council member. Considering the Venn diagram of her relationship with most members would’ve contained only “high school student” and “had class together that one time” in the overlapping oval, it wasn’t exactly surprising.
Like general elections and House Speaker races, its base was a popularity contest, positions achieved on name recognition far more often than platform.
Case in point, Student Council President Mackenzie McDonald, who filed in close after Lincoln and promptly started to chat with Tai as she emptied her maroon Jansport onto the long pebble gray table at the front of the room. “A bottle of light,” Mackenzie’s fourth grade teacher, as Mrs. Weisman had once described her, and quite fittingly, since her classmates, like insects, were drawn to her effervescence, joviality, and general congeniality. While childhood broke those qualities in some people, to the view of most, they never seemed to tarnish in Mackenzie. Hence, why when Mackenzie announced her candidacy in fall, Lincoln knew that her own was over. After waiting patiently for her time, believing it would one day come, she was doomed again like she had been on the previous three goes. There was no way that the student body would turn against Mackenzie even if her passion for it was rooted more in checking off a box on a to-do list than in the possibility of what could be at Grant.
Of course, attributing Mackenzie’s victory solely to popularity was to neglect how she operated. Because yes, she was a bottle of light, but bottles of light don’t just occur in the wild. They have to be created, formed through work and calculation and curation so it appears natural. Don’t mind the wire or the batteries or the solar panel. Keep your eyes on the soft glow, and all will be okay.
Mackenzie was the same, only her instruction was a bit different: don’t prod, don’t question, just go with it.
For such perseverance, she learned that Mackenzie was more than a bottle of light. She was a human Swiss Army knife: screwdriver to fix problems; scissors to cut you some slack; mirror to make sure the outside concealed the inside; and a sharpened blade, ready to slice and blood let you until there’s more crimson on the ground than in your veins. Lincoln had received her own cuts from Mackenzie’s blade. Some people would say she had deserved it. Most, if she was honest with herself and she tried to be. Power was nothing but oppression without accountability.
They didn’t appreciate what she was trying to do for them, Lincoln thought. They didn’t appreciate her period.
But that’s the thing about some people. They say they want change, but deep down, they don’t. They want the status quo they know with the illusion that things are getting done. It was more comfortable, less worrisome, easier to accept.
Stepping up to the speaker’s podium, Lincoln wrote her name down in swooping cursive and in the column that said “Reason for Speaking” she jotted her issue in the most concise of terms: Money concerns. She slid the mechanical pencil beneath the clipboard’s lip, and took her seat, first row, three chairs in from the wall. The meeting didn’t begin for another ten minutes, so Lincoln focused her attention on picking lint off her black skinny jeans, tucking the back of her maroon, rough hewn t-shirt into her jeans, so it wouldn’t hang out the bottom of her cardigan, tightening her chestnut ponytail to just below the migraine-inducing point. Briefly her eyes flicked to the front of the room, but when she found Mackenzie’s hazel stare boring into hers from beneath her block of red bangs, Lincoln quickly looked away, and decided to run through her notes one more time, as if that could calm the clip-clap-clip-clap beat within her chest. Her heart felt like a metronome cranked up to its highest speed, a tick counting down to detonation一and possibly decimation.
Like her pulse, the clock kept at its ticking, and as it inched closer to 4:00 PM, other students began to write down their concerns, and take their spots in the classroom-turned-council chambers. They walked by her, their gazes passing over her as though she were a piece of furniture, which she understood. Based on the number of meetings she had attended over the years, she had become just as commonplace as the school seal that had been mounted on the wall for the past 50 years. The remainder of the council joined the table: Kim Isaac, Parliamentarian and sophomore queen; Betty Dayal, Secretary and captain of the varsity soccer team; Jacob Wells, Vice President and boyfriend of Mackenzie McDonald.
They went through the routine一Pledge of Allegiance, attendance, approval of meetings, etc.一before Mackenzie grabbed the clipboard and perused it, fingernail tapping each line.
Looking up, her lips stretched into a rose-pink smile. “First up for comments is Nelson Abraham. Come on up, Nelson.”
What the literal hell? Lincoln thought as Nelson sauntered up, summoning on his phone an image of another graffiti ass that had popped up on school property earlier that week, only this one had underwear sprayed on it because, you know, that counted as artistic expression and hopefully free speech.
Lincoln’s palms warmed, her skin went clammy. Nelson was one of the last people to sign up, which meant, per the Council handbook, that he should’ve been one of the last to speak. It was the format that they had followed at every meeting Lincoln had attended, where she usually ended up in second, third, or fourth position. What was the difference this afternoon?
She was first on the list.
Mackenzie’s eyes locked with Lincoln, the slide of her mouth into a subtle smirk telling Lincoln exactly what she needed to know.
Oh, so this was the bullshit Mackenzie McDonald was shoveling today. Okay.
Was it shocking? No. In the fall election, Lincoln had pissed Mackenzie off royally by suggesting during their debate that she couldn’t have cared less about actually being Grant’s president, but instead just wanted the role for the prestige it offered and the time she would get with her boyfriend, assuming he won his spot (and she assumed correctly). Mackenzie had taken issue with both, but the latter in particular. She called Lincoln anti-feminist and apathetic and judgmental. She said that if Lincoln thought so little of her, what did she think of the rest of her classmates? The auditorium echoed with applause for Mackenzie, and boos and insults for Lincoln, giving Lincoln no chance to explain.
The reaction felt harsh, like the sting of frigid winter winds on her skin. The student body, which had dismissed her more than anything, turned fully against her, ridiculing her, offering her the cold shoulder when they weren’t. All the while, more than once Lincoln caught Mackenzie watching her with that same smirk.
To some extent, Lincoln knew she was in the wrong. While she believed it to be true一at the very least the part about Mackenzie seeking prestige一she shouldn’t have been so reductive and assigned Mackenzie’s reasoning to a boy. It would’ve angered Lincoln if anyone had said that about her. Who was to say that Jacob didn’t copy Mackenzie or that they mutually decided they wanted to be a literal power couple? She sure as hell couldn’t.
But, Lincoln also felt一no, she knew一that she did want this more than Mackenzie, and not for a title, but because she genuinely wanted to make a difference.
From the time she was young, it had been both Lincoln’s greatest strength and weakness: caring… too much. From the stray, rugged tabby cat she saw hiding beneath her neighbor’s porch, to refugee children washing up on shores, their lives stolen as the fled to save them, and everything in between, Lincoln always wanted to help, her heart feeling as if half of it was living on the other side of rib and skin.
Despite counting down the days until she left Grant, Lincoln cared about it deeply, and that went for the people in it, too. She may have irritated them by blathering on about this issue or another, but it all came from a good place, she swore. She wasn’t trying to stir up trouble or hurt anyone. She just wanted to make things better. She wanted to have the cracks in the ramps of the handicapped entrance patched. Stock the library with more inclusive books. Add more gluten-free options to the cafeteria menu. She wanted people to be taken care of, like she was so often not.
Couldn’t they tell that? No. She was just an annoying bitch who couldn’t handle that someone was way more popular than her—a direct quote by the way.
Lincoln raised her hand, although it was more formality than anything. She wasn’t waiting to be called on to talk. “Excuse me?”
Nelson opened his mouth to speak, but—not about to be talked over—Lincoln stood from her chair. “Excuse me?” Nelson gaped at her, while from all sides of the room came glares. A mumbled “annoying loser” banged off her eardrums.
“You have to wait your turn to speak,” Mackenzie said.
“I did. I’m the first name on that list. Per the rules, I am supposed to go first,” Lincoln replied. From behind her, she heard groans of “who cares?” She did, obviously, because she had seen how previous meetings had operated. Wanting to get through the agenda in a timely fashion, people towards the end of the list might not get heard depending on how long the people before them went. They’d have to submit their concerns in writing, many of which were never addressed again.
Lincoln directed her stare at Kim. “Isn’t that right?” As Parliamentarian, the keeper of all the rules, Kim had to recognize this wasn’t above board.
At the far end of the table, Kim stammered, her gaze boomeranging between Lincoln and Mackenzie. “I mean… technically一”
“Well, today, we’re changing it up. So you will be waiting,” Mackenzie said, cutting Kim off with her verbal slap of resoluteness.
“No, I won’t. I’m first. I got here early so I would be. It’s my turn and my issue is really important.” Did she sound like an indignant child? To some. But this was about getting what was rightfully hers. And on behalf of everyone, although they didn’t know it right now, taking back what belonged to them.
“Everyone’s issues are important. You might think you are, but you’re not better than anyone else. Get. in. line,” Mackenzie said, her tone slipping into coldness, words forced through a gritted smile. The room noticed, whispers cropping up in each corner, and spreading inwards. A bulb had flickered in the jar of light and they had all seen it. Like spectators in the Coliseum, they were thirsty for the bloodbath that was going to ensue.
“Debate 2.0, here we go,” one of their classmates said in hushed awe.
Mackenzie nodded at Nelson, and motioned him on, and as Lincoln watched her opportunity begin to slip through her fingers, she decided to hold onto tight. “Someone is stealing money from the Council funds!” she exclaimed.
Lincoln clocked the Council members for reactions: their shifting gazes and bodies, expressions of confusion but over what she can’t tell. “What are you talking about?” Mackenzie asked, her tenor hovering between annoyance, curiosity, and being completely flabbergasted. It was a feeling they shared. When Lincoln began seeing discrepancies in the finances, it shocked her. Her first thought: Grant was more like Congress than she had thought.
She straightened her back, planted her hands on her hips. “There’s money missing from the Council. At least $500.”
“How do you know that?” Jacob jumped in. Was that defensiveness or genuine questioning? Again, hard to tell.
“It’s in your council finances.” Lincoln bent to pick up her pile of reports, and walked them up to the table, handing them out down the line. “You can see it here. I first noticed it on the pie fundraiser at Thanksgiving. I worked that event. I was at the register, and at the end of the night, I counted it because I wanted to know how much we made and it was about $450, not the $325 that you guys wrote in here.”
“It must be a typo then,” Secretary Betty said, but not without a quiver to her words.
“How do you write $325 instead of $450? They don’t even have the same numbers.” Nelson asked, and Lincoln knew that if ass graffiti artist Nelson was seeing the problem, there was a good chance everyone would. Was it possible they could actually see she wasn’t the over-the-top crazy know it all they had deemed her to be, too?
“That was my thought, Nelson,” Lincoln said, aiming a pointed look at Mackenzie. “So then I started looking at the rest of the finances, combing through them, and things just didn’t add up. I mean literally, things didn’t add up correctly. Each fundraiser from this year has been down at least $100 from what was actually earned, and even subtracting supplies cost doesn’t account for it. That’s on page three.” She paused to hold up the page for them to see. “So that either means that Jai is really bad at math, which I’m pretty sure isn’t true since he’s in AP Calc, or the money is going somewhere it’s not supposed to be, and you guys would be the people to know where it went.”
Mackenzie flipped through the report, her fingers turning the pages nearly as fast as her eyes ran over them. “This doesn’t make sense,” she murmured, and whipped her head up toward Jai and then to Jacob. “Why doesn’t this make sense?” They shrugged at her, looked away, either at the ceiling or back at their own copy of the report.
Her goal after the election was to move forward, do the good she could at Grant with her time left, and set her sights on college, where she could finally live out the cliché of putting the past behind her. She wasn’t searching for a way to bring Mackenzie down, and as she watched the council combust in front of her, she still wasn’t. Not really.
She wanted things done right. She wanted accountability. She wanted for the balances of justice to be level. She wanted people to do what they said and make decisions rooted in care that wasn’t solely for one’s self.
But, could say she was upset that Mackenzie was squirming? No. Mackenzie had ensured Lincoln did for the past three months, all while, to everyone else, acting like the beacon people believed her to be. So, yeah, for one moment, Lincoln took it in, maybe even revelled.
“I think that’s what you’re supposed to be telling us, Madame President.”