April 29-May 5
It’s important for kids and families to understand there’s more to life than staring at a screen. Adults, too (I’m typing this with my eyes closed). So I hereby endorse Screen-Free Week. In any case, if there’s a lasting effect from participation in this event, let it be that everyone in the household understands that the TV, computer, or game console being on shouldn’t be its natural state. There are other things to do, better things to do, and tomorrow … I’m going to do them, by gosh!
While the climax of Chain Gang Elementary occurs during “No-TV Week,” the stage was set for confrontation the year before. Sorry, it would give too much away to publish the next year’s … events. So, in honor of Screen-Free Week (back in the day, it was TV-Turnoff Week), here’s an excerpt from my tale of war:
Word of a Susan Gunther presidential candidacy roiled the waters of Malliford. Parents Who Count were prepared to put her name forward in opposition to Richard Gray’s when the PTO’s general membership voted, even though the dissident-packed nominating committee had chosen him to be the the next president, albeit by the narrowest of margins. The rumor-fueled scenario called for a packed cafetorium and a bitter, divisive election in April, filled with name-calling and accusations—the most fun in years.
In hallway conversations, timid board members worried about the effects of an internecine war, but Rita Malloy dismissed their concerns with a brawler’s laugh. “We’ll be ready,” Richard’s chief backer said. “Set the election for high noon.” Then she tunelessly whistled the theme from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.
And so the stage was set for April’s general meeting. Stan McCallister stood at the cafetorium door that evening handing out No-TV Week flyers to parents and students filing in. Despite a lack of support from the PTO and school administration, the gadfly had taken it upon himself to educate people on the pernicious effects of watching too much mindless fare: lower student achievement, obesity, increased violence, unwholesome sexuality. In short, TV made people fat, stupid, angry, and horny. Stan was diplomatic enough to avoid putting it that way. Barely.
Richard’s wife, Anna Lee, was a no-show due to a work conflict. He was disappointed, even resentful, over her absence. Then again, she hadn’t fully accepted his decision and half-joked she wasn’t sure she’d vote for him.
Anxious about the coming showdown and feeling feisty, Richard grabbed a handful of flyers and stood across the entrance from Stan, urging people to turn off their TVs during the last week of April and “rediscover the real world.” He figured he should have a platform, and No-TV Week was as good a cause as any. He’d given it prominent play in Duck Call and promised Stan PTO support next year, if elected.
Near the stage, Mrs. Vandenburg bent over and whispered to Miz Rutherford. Glaring at the leafletters, the principal rose from her seat and started toward them. Vice-principal Baines reached out and put a restraining hand on her boss’s shoulder. PTO president Barbara Hodges then hustled over and huddled with school administrators, and then pointed to the podium. The principal sat down, turning her back on the troublemakers and stiffening her shoulders.
“They won’t support me on this, even though it would do more good for families and children than anything they’ve accomplished,” Stan said, a defiant gleam in his eyes. “I’d like to see her come out against me. Just tell me to shut up and sit down and go on record in favor of mindless sex and violence and intellectual bankruptcy.”
From the podium, Barbara wagged a finger at Richard and mouthed “bad boy” before she spoke into the microphone: “A quorum being present, I hereby call this meeting to order. Let all political activity cease.”
“Ha!” Stan said loudly.
“Come on,” Richard told him. “We’ll give it a rest for now.”
Stan handed out two more flyers and stepped away from the door, scowling.
Richard took a seat beside his fidgeting son. As they stood for the pledge, he looked around. No sign of Susan. He watched both entrances carefully, and after a few more minutes, concluded his would-be rival was a no-show.
Midway through the meeting, Rita announced the nominating committee’s slate of officers. Following protocol, Barbara called for nominations from the floor. Silence. And so Richard became president-elect by acclamation. Take that, PWCs! Teresa smiled at him across the aisle and gave a thumbs-up. When Miz Rutherford took the podium, she congratulated Richard and the other newly-elected officers. As far as the average parent was concerned, Malliford was one big happy family.
When the meeting adjourned, Rita rushed over to Richard and said, “I thought the principal’s face was going to crack when she smiled. Think of it! We won!”
“One battle does not a war make,” Richard said.
“Cool it, Yoda.”
Richard accepted congratulations on his way out of the cafetorium, and Nick endured several hair-touslings. During the walk home, Nick asked how much money his father would make as president and was disappointed at the answer.
Anna Lee was there when they returned to Applegate, and Nick gave her the news. “It was unanimous!” the boy exclaimed. “Everybody likes Daddy.”
“So Susan didn’t run,” Anna Lee said, sounding mournful. “Congratulations, I guess.”
Richard gave her a worried look. “Are you OK with this?”
“Oh, of course,” she said, sarcasm seeping into her tone. “Thanks for asking.”
* * *
April’s No-TV Week was a disappointment to Stan. Only a few teachers cooperated with him, including Mrs. Leland and—surprise!—Bullfrog Eyes, Avon Little. The Grays participated, but Nick barely noticed, since he didn’t watch much TV during the week and soccer season was in full swing. When Stan reported via e-mail that only thirty students turned in pledge cards, Richard said, “That’s not so bad, considering.”
“It’s horrible, like a five percent turnout,” Stan wrote.
“Next year will be better. It will be a really big deal,” Richard assured him.