It’s a Tuesday late afternoon and the house is busy with sugary snacks, too much homework and searching for sharpened pencils. I turn to the door as my eleven-year-old son, Eitan, marches in with big news. “I’ve been nominated to run for Vice President of the student council,” he announces, huge hazel eyes shining in his dimpled white face.
I reach up to high-five him, “Well the class made a good choice in you,” I say and he beams. “So, tell me when did you decide to become a politician?” I ask.
“We had a secret ballot,” Eitan says, clearly entranced by the notion of a secret anything. “We each wrote down two names but we couldn’t write our own. Then the principal added up the names and the two with the most votes were nominated.”
“So cool!” I say, “Who are you running against?”
“They nominated Reuven too.”
A pause, a momentary silence before I recover. “Well, that’s great!” I say with a little too much gusto. “He’ll make a worthy opponent.”
Even as I smile, my heart sinks. Reuven is one of Eitan’s closest friends. Why do they have to be pitted against each other? But the sixth grade voted for their two best choices and you can’t argue with democracy. So Eitan is running against Reuven and behind my false cheer, I’m afraid.
I’m afraid because these two have been friends for years, since kindergarten. The really good, sleepover party, go to camp together, help each other on the playground kind of friends. And they’ve been maturing into a new type of friendship too, learning Torah with each other in their free time, celebrating as they complete tractates of Mishnah together, both self motivated, hard workers who bring out the best in each other. I often laugh when I see them on a Shabbos afternoon shaking hands formally as they take leave of each other after learning together. “They’re like two little men!” Reuven’s mother and I laugh, when they can’t hear us. “So cute!”
All these years of wishing each other good Shabbos, good job, good luck and now they’re one against the other.
I remind myself of something I once learned: a relationship that has its basis in Torah learning can never be severed. I repeat this thought in my head to comfort myself and hope that it’ true.
We talk to Eitan of course. We tell him that being Vice President isn’t as important as being a good friend and that no matter who wins they’re both winners already. I even talk with Reuven - although I’m sure his parents have spoken to him too. I grab a moment as he slides into my van for carpool. “Hey, candidate!” He grins his familiar, happy grin.
As he bends over to buckle in, I say, “You know no matter what happens it’s all good as long as you two stay friends, right?”
“I know,” he says ducking his head, shyly.
How can I expect good sportsmanship from sixth grade boys when grown men can’t manage it?
“I know too, Mommy,” Eitan says and I let it go. But I can’t help worrying. When you’re eleven being Vice President of the Student Council must seem awfully important, and while winning isn’t everything – it's a lot. How can I expect good sportsmanship from sixth grade boys when grown men can’t manage it?
“Stop worrying,” my husband says. “They’re good kids, they’ll handle it right.”
I hope so. But one of them has got to win and the other’s got to lose and I’ve seen good friendships ruined over a lot less.
The first night of the campaign we sit in the living room bandying about slogans and ideas. Zevi, my older son, suggests that we make a poster that has both Eitan and Reuven’s names on it and we ask Eitan what he thinks of the idea. “I like it!” he says, “after all, we’re both good choices.” So, that’s exactly what the poster says. “Vote for Eitan Z or Reuven K - they’re both good choices!”
The next day, Eitan comes home a little deflated, telling me that boys in the older grades had mocked the poster. They said it was stupid to be so nice and that the point of a race is to win. I tell him that it’s never stupid to be nice. He lifts his chin. “That’s what I thought,” he says and opens his book to do homework.
On Sunday, the night before the election, the whole house works together on Eitan’s speech and slide show, and debates whether or not he should wear a suit and tie to school the next day. Then I put an end to the festivities in typical Mommy fashion. “It’s a big day, tomorrow. Go take a shower, candidate!”
“Okay,” Eitan says as he lifts himself from his perch on the couch. He heads to the staircase and suddenly turns around and marches back to me. He sticks out his hand for mine. “This is how I’m going to shake Reuven’s hand if he wins,” he says, pumping hard. “And I’ll say, ‘Congratulations Reuven! I’m so happy for you.’”
He releases my hand and immediately reaches for it again. “And this is how I’m going to shake Reuven’s hand if he loses,” he says squeezing just as hard. “And I’ll say, ‘You ran a great campaign, Reuven! I’m glad we’re going to be on the student council together.”
Then he turns and heads up the stairs leaving me standing in place, staring dumbly at my hand. In the space of a minute, I have won and then lost. I’m not sure how I feel about it.
An hour later, before bed, I head up to his room, “How are you feeling?” I ask.
“A little fidgety,” he admits. I reach over to the side of his bed and pick up his uniform shirt, giving him a look that says anybody running for Vice President should know enough to put their laundry in the hamper. As I shake the shirt out I see against the pocket a homemade campaign pin. “Vote for Reuven!” it says with Reuven’s earnest face smiling up at me from my son’s shirt.
“You wore this today?” I ask.
The results came in on Monday. Does it really matter who won?
I guess something in the way I’m looking at him makes him uncomfortable.
“Not a big deal, Mommy,” he says, shrugging. “He wore mine too. We’re friends right? We help each other out.”
I nod. Wow, I think, and I breathe a sigh of relief and gratitude, as I realize that the lesson I’d been working so hard to impart was already ingrained in them. We didn’t need to teach these boys about friendship - they knew it already. And without clichés or speeches, they were teaching it to me.
The results came in on Monday. Does it really matter who won? Eitan told me that the boys stood with their arms around each other as they waited in the school office to hear the news. And that afterward they both shook hands hard, tired by the race but still friends.
I guess that means they’re both winners.