“Ms. Cahill for Congress”

A LESSON THAT NEVER ENDS

Well, this is the most upbeat and inspiring story I’ve heard in a long time.

It came out in joyous original trade paperback last fall but somehow fell through the increasingly narrow slats of our distracted media (see *personal note below). Now there’s a chance of resurrecting it, but more about that later, too.

The book is “Ms. Cahill for Congress” (written with Linden Gross; Ballantine; 246 pages; $14), and here’s  how it starts:

In 1999, a  gifted teacher named Tierney Cahill was introducing the concept of democracy to her sixth-grade class in Reno, Nevada, when she pointed out that in America, anybody can run for office.

Nobody believed her.  “You can’t run for office in this country unless you’re a millionaire or you know a lot of millionaires,” one girl said.

Cahill tried again. “All citizens in our country have the right to run for office,” she said. “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.”

And the class shot back. “Well, then, why don’t you prove it?” they asked. “Why don’t you run for office?”

*A Personal Note

It just kills me that during the presidential election,  Barack Obama stood for exactly what Cahill was telling her students – that anybody (even “a mutt like me,” as Obama half-jokingly to himself) can run for office and be taken seriously. Obama’s belief that the biggest lessons come to us from the ground up, not the top down, couldn’t find a better example than “Cahill for Congress.”

What stopped the media from seeing this book as a great story during and for the presidential campaign? Well, here is one idea: traditional media are failing because they’re  addicted to reporting ONE STORY ONLY – Olympics, Election, Super Bowl, 9/11, Oscars, Bank Disasters, War Hot Spots, or Environment [if fun, like electric cars for everyone]).

And newspapers have dropped to the lowest of the low, following rather than leading TV/radio  news. No wonder three more just failed. What newspapers have forgotten they do best is to give readers a feeling of community through stories all around us that we don’t know exist.  IF editors would get off their own addiction to the ONE LOCAL STORY (mayor, murders, teams, colleges, events, scandals) and assign some real reporting on long-unseen districts and neighborhoods, neglected arts and offbeat human interest features [plus wouldn’t advertisers love to appear in a center spread with a hundred fascinating websites per day called NEWS FROM THE INTERNET], the print version no matter how brief might find a grateful audience returning.  It would be great to see newspapers launch a simple  campaign that shows people enjoying the morning paper with their coffee under a headline like AH, THE LUXURY OF DOTS ALREADY CONNECTED or some fun thing. Of course they have to connect those dots first.

To make a long and delicious story short, that did it. In this often funny, always instructive and occasionally scalding memoir,  Cahill describes how she not only ran for Congress using her sixth-grade class to manage her campaign, she turned the race into a terrific civics lesson for students and general readers included.

Starting with an empty Folger’s coffee can (for initial fund-raising), a single phone, grand ideas for buttons (“we’re going to have to design stuff?”) and committees on everything from speechwriting, finance, media, and management, the kids and their teacher initially do everything wrong.

They don’t order posters from union printshops; they don’t know how to talk to the media; they approach state bigwigs who become “annoyed by our little class project,” and Cahill herself gets nauseated at the thought of speaking outside the classroom. (Her greatest accomplishment:  “I managed not to hurl” during her first big speech.)

Just getting the idea  past school authorities and parents in her very Republican district is a huge and intimidating task. Cahill, a Democrat, is already at odds with such Republican milestones as Bush’s No Child Left Behind program of  “teaching to test” rather than “teaching to learn.”

“Our vice principal brought us these disgusting practice test booklets and expected us to get the kids to regurgitate the answers, and then test them again and again. Where’s the growth in that? You’re simply testing kids to the point where they’re never going to think for themselves.” Don’t get her started on the “horrid” trick questions in multiple choice exams that only highlight students’ weaknesses.

Very soon the kids get so organized and streamlined that even reporters, fighting to get on her schedule, tell Cahill, “That child could work for me!” Getting her name on the ballot is an arduous but exhilarating effort, and readers get to cheer as well when some of the shy and learning-disabled students reluctantly enter the fray — and begin to thrive.

The fun of the book lies in Cahill’s love for teaching as an interactive experience. She tells us that only 20 percent of students learn “the traditional way” – study, get tested – so teaching is a matter of offering different means of access.  “I don’t consider myself a teacher as much as I do a facilitator,” she writes. “I guide them along the way by asking questions and demonstrating that it’s more important to be ‘passionately curious,’ as Einstein said about himself, than to have all the answers.”

She certainly makes us passionately curious about teaching this “lesson that never ends,” as one observer puts it,  while still running as a serious candidate. The fact that she’s not running for dog catcher or councilwoman but for national office means that if if she wins, her family will have to move to Washington D.C., a frightening yet increasingly tantalizing thought.

Meanwhile, though, Cahill, a single mother of three children, is working three jobs (teacher, waitress, realtor)  and still can’t make ends meet. In fact, she acknowledges how low teachers’ salaries can get by admitting that “my own children qualified for free and reduced lunches, which meant that we fell below the poverty line.”

Despite the fact she often can’t afford a quart of milk, Cahill becomes a knowledgeable and well-traveled candidate (and soon an excellent speaker), who also makes time for coaching volleyball and high school basketball, working as an eight-grade advisor, acting as the NEA (National Education Association) union rep and running the student store.

But the idea that anyone can throw in her hat and learn to be a good candidate is sorely tested with the book’s biggest eye-opener -  the dismissive and cruel snub by  the Democratic Party of one of their own.

“Is this a joke? Do you think this is funny?” says the executive director when Cahill and her class call the state Democratic office to introduce her candidacy. “I don’t appreciate this, and I don’t think the party is going to appreciate this. Have you talked to the movers and shakers in the North?”

Happily for readers, the madder Cahill gets, the funnier she becomes.

“Disgusted, I replied. ‘Who are they? Are they listed in the phone book under movers and shakers? You’re saying I have to ask permission to run for office? I don’t think so! Last time I checked, that’s my  right as a citizen…”

Hard to believe, but most of the Democrats she meets try to stop Cahill because she isn’t “anointed” and end up treating her like “a whack job.” We can’t blame her for feeling “insulted” and shocked, especially since she grew up loving the Democratic Party so much that she named one of her children Kennedy (after Bobby).

“I had been told my entire life that the Democrats were the white hats,” she writes, “the ones who saved the day, who fought against poverty and civil rights. Now all I could see was them fighting me.”

Increasingly, “Cahill for Congress” campaign materials are routinely lost by Party staffers (“Oh, we must have forgotten them at the office. Sorry,” says Shane Piccinini, head of Washoe County Democrats).  Cahill herself is given a dressing down by the East Coast Coordinator for the Gore campaign that is so condescending and snide, we know now why Bush stole the presidency.

How many other candidates have they done this to? I wondered…Suddenly I realized why the Republicans have gained such a foothold. They do a great job with what amounts to farm teams. They bring a lot of their right-wing nut jobs up through the ranks in local government (and) wind up controlling everything…It made me sick.”

Since the back cover gives this away, I might as well say that halfway through, the impossible happens: Cahill whom the media is finally celebrating as “The Teacher [Who] Teaches Us a Lesson” wins the Democratic primary, and boy, do we cheer along with her students. . And yet except for one remarkable volunteer in Las Vegas, the Democrats still won’t help her campaign.

Aware of the irony – that she agreed to this campaign to prove to her students that anybody in America can run for office – Cahill tells a Democratic Party leader,  “Assuming  I was a lost cause because I didn’t have a million dollars to run a campaign is the exact reason so many Americas have become so cynical about our political system.”

Unexpected lessons emerge as the final election approaches and a whole new class of sixth graders take over (after semester break). I guessed what would happen but never expected the toll it would take on Cahill. It’s a credit to her candor as an author that she lets us see her isolation and despair, and her fight to regain resilience.

The book is so enlightening and easy to read for adults and young adults alike that I’m glad there’s still hope for national coverage. For one thing, a lecture agency has gotten hold of Tierney Cahill and is sending her around the nation to speak to business and political groups as well as to teachers and parents. She’s such a no-nonsense and unthreatening speaker that books sell out wherever she goes.

Schools are beginning to adopt the book as an easy-to-read primer for teachers and classes who want to pursue their own civic cause. You can find resources for teachers and schedule of Cahill’s appearances at http://www.mscahillforcongress.com/

And movie rights have been sold with Halle Barry to play Ms. Cahill, so you never know.

But I think the reason the book never really surfaced last October is that the media saw “Ms. Cahill for Congress” as a fluke.

Now in the Obama era, we can all see it as a promise.  I think I’m one of many who hopes Tierney Cahill will run again, so I called her in Reno and learned that she’s “still happy being a mom and a teacher.” And after the kids leave home? “Oh it’s definitely something I’ve thought about.”

*A Personal Note

It just kills me that during the presidential election,  Barack Obama stood for exactly what Cahill was telling her students – that anybody (even “a mutt like me,” as Obama half-jokingly to himself) can run for office and be taken seriously. Obama’s belief that the biggest lessons come to us from the ground up, not the top down, couldn’t find a better example than “Cahill for Congress.”

What stopped the media from seeing this book as a great story during and for the presidential campaign? Well, here is one idea: traditional media are failing because they’re  addicted to reporting ONE STORY ONLY – Olympics, Election, Super Bowl, 9/11, Oscars, Bank Disasters, War Hot Spots, or Environment [if fun, like electric cars for everyone]).

And newspapers have dropped to the lowest of the low, following rather than leading TV/radio  news. No wonder three more just failed. What newspapers have forgotten they do best is to give readers a feeling of community through stories all around us that we don’t know exist.  IF editors would get off their own addiction to the ONE LOCAL STORY (mayor, murders, teams, colleges, events, scandals) and assign some real reporting on long-unseen districts and neighborhoods, neglected arts and offbeat human interest features [plus wouldn’t advertisers love to appear in a center spread with a hundred fascinating websites per day called NEWS FROM THE INTERNET], the print version no matter how brief might find a grateful audience returning.  It would be great to see newspapers launch a simple  campaign that shows people enjoying the morning paper with their coffee under a headline like AH, THE LUXURY OF DOTS ALREADY CONNECTED or some fun thing. Of course they have to connect those dots first.

6 thoughts on ““Ms. Cahill for Congress”

  1. Ellen Meister

    This book sounds wonderful. I want to buy it for my kids (and me). Thanks so much for blogging about it.

    Reply
  2. BlueThrone

    I’m also surprised that this book did not get more press. On the other hand, it makes sense. Had Cahill been a man, perhaps things would be different. This election taught us two things:

    1 – Money IS needed to become a politician, or at least an important one. Obama would not be in the White House without $750 million and the propaganda and influence it bought (which he has to pay back now). A “mutt like me?” Still had to be a Harvard, Ivory League (that’s intentional) trained lawyer. Culturally White, but passed for Black. The “educated” White’s dream. MLK’s dream has NOT been achieved yet.

    2 – Sexism is alive and well. Hillary and Palin suffered. Don’t like Palin? Fine. But I can’t tell you how much I cringed when someone referred to her as “That Woman!” Female politicians are held to a different standard. It is deplorable.

    Anyway, please excuse me and my soapbox. I think this story is great and in the true spirit of what it means to be American. My sincerest HOPE for the future is that we get some real CHANGE in the White House in the way of women and men who represent the best of the nation, trained and raised in a variety of ways without the bonds of Dem/Rep induced class division. People like Cahill, who put the Constitution to the test and discovered that we indeed can find hope in the people of this nation, not a seasonal celebrity who has the right face at the right time.

    Reply
  3. Pingback: Can anyone run for office? | Esrati

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  5. rhbee

    I have been away from the public school system for a while. I left before No Child came in, which if you were in the system actually was becoming inevitable here in California. I have come to believe that for us to ever get a education system that works to educate we may have to scrap everything we have and just start over.

    Reply
  6. Joe

    As a Conservative, I applaund Mrs. Cahill for standing up for the Constitution.

    I might have philosophical differences of opinion with her, but her guts and belief in the right of the citizen to stand up to the good old boys club, and teach by example are the foundation of our Nation.

    Reply

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