An anxious Leah Caldwell took the stage last month at the junior assembly of Cypress Springs High School, only one big step away from her quest to win a free trip to the nation's capital.
She was vying for the Bill Archer Internship Program, a one-week, expense-paid visit to Washington, D.C. Leah had carefully followed the contest rules. She had crafted an essay on participation in government that a teacher committee had selected as one of the four finalists out of a junior class of 540.
The second phase was tougher, taking her to the auditorium stage. Administrators emphasized to the kids that this was a contest about democracy, so it would be decided by the democratic process. The only requirement was that she deliver a speech that would be persuasive enough to get the audience to cast the most votes for her.
The 17-year-old cleared her throat and began reading the poem she had created. It was about the nation's leaders appearing to her in a dream. One verse had a confused George W. Bush commenting on her hopes to go to Washington -- the other Washington:
I tried to explain not Washington the state, but he kept going on how Seattle would be great.
But it was Bill Clinton -- the one in her dream poem -- who delighted the audience:
He was looking at me from afar and I saw in his mouth a fat cigar.
He told me I wouldn't win and shouldn't put myself on a limb.
And behold, what do I see? Monica Lewinsky arising from her knees.
Leah left the stage to a rousing student ovation. Teachers laughed, and even though she was the first of the four finalists, students already were passing in their ballots for this daring topical delivery.
The young woman with the hopes of becoming a political reporter had obviously won. Or so it seemed. But, at least at this high school, a contest devoted to democracy would turn out to be anything but democratic.
On her way back to class, Leah was met with high fives and praise from her peers. "One teacher said to me, 'It's about time somebody broke the mold.' " Another asked for a copy of the speech.
However, Assistant Principal Barbara Weiman confronted her in the hallway. Furious, she pulled Leah aside and lectured her about the contents of the poem. Weiman has a reputation among students of being especially prudish, and Leah thought it was just an isolated criticism.
"I thought it would pass over," she says. "It's not like what I was saying hadn't been in newspapers, on the radio or discussed in school." Weiman wanted to know if Leah had read the code of conduct. "I said, 'No, but I have read the Constitution,' " Leah recalls replying. "She said that when I walk through these doors, I lose my rights."
Leah heard that a panel of 15 teachers would be reviewing her situation the next morning. That night her mother was stunned by the news. This was hardly a hell-raising troublemaker -- Leah was an honors student and class historian.
Michelle Monical Caldwell knew how much the contest meant to her daughter; she'd watched her work for a week on her preliminary essay, then agonized with her over the poem the night before the presentation.
Leah's sister had suggested the reference to Clinton, and the author thought a fresh, amusing approach would work best. "I really wanted to do something original, something people would remember," she says, "something that would make people want to vote for me." Her entire family served as her sounding board on the eve of the assembly -- and they thought it was funny and fine.
Cypress Springs was supposed to announce the contest results two days after the assembly. Instead, there was silence. It took administrators nearly a week to finally disclose the winner: Brooke Clinton.
It didn't matter that Leah had been the leading vote-getter. She'd been disqualified, and school administrators hadn't even had the decency to tell her they'd stripped her of the title.
The next day, Leah and her mother showed up to ask Principal Alan Meek what was going on. "He had a copy of the speech and had the word 'inappropriate' written all over," Leah's mother says. "They had a specific problem with the use of the word 'knees.' "
Meek says the speech should have tied in to themes about representing the school and the benefits of the program. Her poem "offended" some of the teachers, he says. "Leah did not use the guidelines provided; instead she used a shock method with sexual innuendos to get the vote, and that created a problem."
The Caldwells' position was simple. This was no precedent-setting case of hanging chads or Katherine Harris edicts on Florida recounts. There had been no rules or even guidelines issued about the content of the presentations. Leah had gone by the spirit of the contest in crafting a poem that appealed to the voting constituency: her fellow juniors.
The only written rules were those of the Student Intern Foundation of Houston. Each member of the junior class was to "be given an election ballot listing the nominees chosen by the committee," the rules said. "Each student will cast one vote and the student who received a majority will be the intern."
If any teacher was offended, Leah offered to write a letter of apology. But she argued that without establishing boundaries, the administration had set the stage for anything to happen. "She appealed to her generation, and she got the vote," her mother says, "and they didn't like it."
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
And the students didn't like being hoodwinked by school officials. "Everyone in our class couldn't believe it because it was fairly obvious at the assembly that Leah had won," says Zaid Hydari, 16. "They made it seem like it was a really big deal that we were going through this voting process and that we could pick any of the four candidates. They said it was an opportunity for us, the peers, to elect a representative of us."
Clinton (no relation to "Cigar" Bill) accepted the prize reluctantly, as another of the skeptics about the process.
"Leah's speech was really funny, and she got a lot of feedback from the crowd," Clinton says. "The whole process was supposed to be democratic, but then the school [administration] took over, which is funny since this whole thing was centered around politics to begin with."
It was Leah's last chance to go to Washington; the contest is offered to only juniors. "If I had known it was going to be decided by teachers, I would have been simple and honest," Leah says, "but they decided that I was going to be judged by my peers, and then they turned it around and judged it themselves."