The Peeples Choice


George was a sharp guy, but running for student-body president against football star Eric Torrington seemed like social suicide.

The Peeples Choice

George Peeples is my best friend. For 17 years, we’ve lived across the street and one house over from each other. We were born in the same month of the same year in the same hospital. When our moms went to Relief Society, George and I shared the same playpen. When George started kindergarten, I was his first seat partner. We got the chicken pox at the same time, and we both had a crush on Linda Helmers in the sixth grade.

We’re a pair, a team, bookends. And we plan to keep it that way. If everything works out, we’ll go on our missions at the same time, come back at the same time, find twin sisters to marry, and go into business together. We’re like brothers, maybe even closer. There’s not a person on the face of the earth that I know better than George.

That’s why I was more than a little surprised when George pulled me aside on Sunday after our priests quorum lesson was finished. What he said to me was totally unexpected. Brother Roberts had given a good lesson about living up to our potential and making the most of our lives by developing our talents and abilities. I could tell that it had made an impression on George.

“Casey,” he said, motioning for me to come closer. “We’ve got to talk.” He had a faraway look in his eyes. “I think I’m inspired,” he said.

“To do what?”

“The lesson today. Doing something for yourself and something for others at the same time. I’m getting this feeling, Case. A big feeling. I want to make a difference. I know it’s crazy, but …”

“But what?”

“Case, I’m going to run for student-body president.”

My mouth must have dropped open about six inches. George is a great guy, but a student-body president? That was hard to imagine.

“You don’t have to say it,” George beamed. “You’re surprised. Right?”

“I am surprised, George.”

“Here’s another surprise for you. I want you to be my campaign manager.”

I didn’t know what to say. Here was my best friend asking me to sign on as first mate of the Titanic. George was well liked, but not what I’d call popular. Maybe if he were all-universe in a glory sport, like basketball or football. George was a wrestler, and not a very good one at that. The only office he’d held in school was Science Club treasurer. This was not a man who brought Thomas Jefferson to mind. George didn’t have a chance.

My ten-year-old brother Matt came scooting down the hallway. “Dad says you need to get to the car right now,” he blurted out. I don’t know when I was happier to be pestered by my brother. “Gotta fly, George. I’ll call you later.” With that, I quickly headed toward the car. Very quickly.

“Can you believe it? George wanting to run for student-body president?”

I giggled. I was at home with my family at the dinner table, chewing pot roast and talking over the events at church. “Student-body president. Isn’t that a scream?”

“Oh, I don’t think it’s so funny,” my dad mused. “He has a lot of ability. George is a friend to everyone. He brings out the best in others, a rare trait these days.”

Mom picked up the theme in a hurry. “You shouldn’t talk about George that way, Casey. You should encourage him to run, not poke fun at him behind his back.”

My pot roast suddenly tasted a little dry. “Uh, I am supporting him. He asked me to be his campaign manager,” I mumbled.

“Good for George. Just like him to place so much faith in you, son,” Dad approved. “You know what I like about George? He’s a good people person.”

“That’s Peeples,” Matt chimed in. “He’s a Peeples person.”

“Hey, how about that? Vote for George. The Peeples Choice,” my mother said triumphantly. “Is that a terrific campaign slogan or what?”

“The Peeples Choice. Cute, Mom.” I smiled weakly. As soon as the dishes were cleared, I was on the phone with George.

“You don’t even have to say it. You’re accepting the campaign manager’s position,” he chattered. “I knew I could count on you. See what you can find out tomorrow at Mr. Carello’s office. For a principal, he knows a lot about what’s going on. Then we’ll plot strategy after school over here.”

“Right, George. Strategy. It’s going to take a lot of that to pull this off.”

About four the next afternoon, I knocked on George’s door. His little brother, Ralphie, answered. Ralphie is seven years old and the unquestioned budding neighborhood genius. He was reading at three, wrote his first simple computer program at five, and his first complex program a year later. He’s got a round little face, like George’s, a bowl haircut, and oval tortoise shell glasses. “Hi Ralphie! Discovered any new subatomic particles this week?”

“Well, no Casey, but I do have a new ant farm. It’s fascinating. Do you want to see it?”

“Some other time, Ralphie. Big doings here today,” I said, walking to the family room where George was studying a city map.

“Casey! What did you find out?”

“Good news and bad news. First the good. Mr. Carello said he knew of only two people running for student-body president.”

“Only two? Me and who else?”

“That’s the bad news, George. The other candidate is Eric Torrington.”

George looked as though he’d swallowed a snail. “Uhhh,” he groaned. “The Eric Torrington? All-state quarterback? Honor roll student? The one who never has a hair out of place?”

Before I could answer, I heard a voice from the couch across the room. “Eric Torrington. Ohhhh. He’s so gorgeous.”

It was George’s ninth-grade sister, Libby. The mere mention of Eric Torrington caused her heart to skip a beat.

“Yes,” I sighed. “That Eric Torrington.”

“It felt so right yesterday, but maybe this isn’t such a good idea,” George worried.

“We can’t let the competition scare us off,” I reassured. “Look, if you were Eric, would you take George Peeples’s campaign seriously?”

“No. I really wouldn’t.”

“Neither will Eric. That gives us the element of surprise. And I know we can outwork him.” I was startled by how confident I was sounding. I suppose that people boarding the Titanic had smiles on their faces. “I’ve already got a great campaign slogan. ‘The Peeples Choice.’ There are a lot more people at school who never will be a star athlete. They’ll identify with you, not Eric.”

George was looking less discouraged. “The Peeples Choice. That’s good.”

“The credit for it really belongs to my mom.”

“And the surprise stuff. I do have a few ideas up my sleeve. Like tracting. You know, like the missionaries do,” George explained. “I got a list of addresses from the computer today. Every student at Westmont High is right here. I’ve already started to plot their homes on this map. We can try to visit as many as we can at their own house before election day. The personal touch. What do you think?”

“It’s worth trying.”

“Then we’re in this thing to the end?”

“Together all the way.”

“And not even Linda Helmers will come between us?”

“No way. And she moved to Montana four years ago anyway.”

George laughed. “Eric Torrington is about to be thrown for a loss.”

We stood at the corner of 19th and Oak Street, looking at a long list of addresses attached to a clipboard. “Mark Crane,” George said firmly. “Second house on the right.” We marched to the door and George knocked vigorously. A young man opened the door.

“Mark Crane?”

“Yes, I’m Mark.”

“Mark, I’m George Peeples, and I’ll be a senior next year at Westmont High. I’m running for student-body president and—”

Mark’s face brightened. “So you’re the guy. I heard someone was running against Eric Torrington, but I couldn’t remember who. What did you say your name is?”

“George. George Peeples.”

“That Eric is awesome,” Mark said admiringly. “Do you remember the game against Central a year ago? We were down by six points with two minutes left.”

“Hey, do I remember that game!” George enthused. “Of course. Eric was running to his left with a linebacker and a nose tackle hanging on his back. Then he sets up and throws the ball about 60 yards against the grain …”

“And our guy is wide open, makes the catch, and dances into the end zone. We kick the extra point and the game is history,” Mark rhapsodized. “Awesome.”

“Yeah, awesome,” George gushed. “That pass was a tight spiral, no wobble at all.”

“Sixty yards easy,” gloated Mark. Mark blinked at George. “So what did you say brought you here?”

“Oh. Right. Well, I’m running for student-body president against Eric, and gosh, if you don’t vote for him, then how about voting for me?”

Mark gave George an odd glance. “Yeah. Sure. So how will we do in football next year?” They talked about football for a couple more minutes, then parted amiably. George and I turned back toward the street.

“You don’t need to say it, Casey. I’ve got to be more assertive. Mark pretty much had me talked into voting for Eric.” He looked at me. “Tell me it will get better.”

“One door, one new friend. That’s not bad. It will get better,” I told him.

Looking back, it did get better. We never knew what to expect when we knocked on those doors. We talked with tall kids, short kids, skinny kids, not-so-skinny kids, people with blond hair, people with brown hair, and in a couple of cases, people with orange hair. Some simply told us they would vote for Eric. Some showed no interest in voting at all. And a few, I think, really took seriously what George had to say. Tracy McNeil was one of those people.

We’d been working a neighborhood for a couple of hours, greeted mostly by blank looks. We were worn down. George’s shoulders slumped. We approached a large, two-story house with green shutters. I rapped on the door, and a girl our age answered.

“Hello, I’m George Peeples and I’m running for student-body president.”

She smiled. “Oh yes. Some of my friends told me you’d been to their houses.” She was just a few inches over five feet tall and as thin as a drinking straw. She had long, light brown hair. “I’m Tracy McNeil,” she said.

“This is my friend and campaign manager, Casey Baxter,” George introduced me.

“Why are you doing this, George?” Tracy asked.

“You mean going to houses and asking people to vote for me?” She nodded. “On a day like today, I wonder myself. A lot of people don’t care, it seems.

“And you do?” Her question was polite, but with a point.

“Yes, I do. I want to make a difference,” George said earnestly. “I have some good ideas, like the scholarship committee. The way I see it, with a little work and relying on some expertise in the community, we could double the number of scholarships received by Westmont students. I want to see if my ideas will work. If I don’t run, I’ll never know what effect I could have had. Right, Casey?”

“Right, George.”

“Haven’t you ever wanted to do something but were afraid to try?”

Tracy blushed. “Cheerleader,” she said softly. “I’ve always wanted to dance around with pompoms and yell silly rhymes in front of large audiences. It’s dumb, I know.”

“It’s not dumb. Why haven’t you tried out?” George asked.

“You have to be pretty and popular. I’m neither,” Tracy answered.

“I think you’re pretty,” George blurted out. “And if a little guy like me can run for student-body president against an all-state quarterback, then you can try out for cheerleader.”

A light clicked on in my head. “I remember your picture in the yearbook. You’re on the gymnastics team. You could do those cheerleader routines in your sleep.”

“Well …” Tracy wavered.

“You try out,” George demanded.

“Maybe,” hedged Tracy.

“Will you at least vote for me?” George wondered. “I have other good ideas, too.

“Eric doesn’t have any ideas. You have my vote. You earned it,” laughed Tracy.

When we left the doorstep, George’s mood was definitely on the upswing. “Tracy McNeil. A great human being. Intelligent. Attractive. And supremely insightful,” he rambled. “Case, by some chance do you think she has a twin sister?”

Still, George and I worried. You couldn’t walk down a hallway at school without seeing Eric’s football-shaped campaign tags. “Be a Winner. Join the Torrington Team,” they urged. We needed help. Even with the assistance of George’s parents and the dubious efforts of Libby, we couldn’t keep up.

I was at home one evening, halfheartedly trying to write a paper for English class when Brother Roberts called. He’s an architect, only a couple of years out of school. Our priests would do almost anything for him.

“How’s the campaign going, Casey? When I ask George, he only assures me that all is well. My instincts tell me otherwise.”

“It could be better,” I admitted. “Eric Torrington has a lot of support. Except for the wrestlers, he’s got every athlete’s vote in the school. Then there’s the hunk factor. Eric is one; George isn’t. George may not even carry his own family. Yesterday at school I saw Libby with a Torrington tag. Can you believe it? Like half the other freshman girls, she’s probably convinced herself that Eric is a secret admirer and is getting ready to ask her to the prom or something.”

“Not a good sign when you can’t count on your own sister’s vote,” Brother Roberts sympathized. “When are you and George going to meet again?”

“Tomorrow, about seven at his house.”

“Let me see what I can do to help.”

I was a few minutes late getting to George’s house the next night. Ralphie answered the door.

“Hey, Ralphie, been reading up on superconductivity lately?”

“Why yes, I have—an unbelievable force. George is in there. I was just going over his trigonometry with him.”

George sat in the family room, staring toward a shelf where Ralphie’s ant farm was located. “Oh hi,” he said wearily when I came into the room. He turned again to look at the ant farm. “You don’t suppose we’re any different from those ants?”

“Say what?”

“The ants and us. They wander around their little world, just like we do. They work hard, just like we do. And they won’t be elected student-body president, just like us.”

“George, you’ve been campaigning too hard. This is fairly obvious, but you are not an ant.”

The doorbell rang. We heard a commotion at the front door. Then Brother Roberts strode in carrying a dozen pieces of cardboard. Behind him streamed in our priests and the entire Laurel class.

“George, Casey,” Brother Roberts explained hastily. “This is your instant campaign committee. I’ve got a pretty good hand in art and everyone here has been cutting paper and pasting since their kindergarten days. These materials are scraps from work. We’re here to help you.”

George started to sputter something. One of the priests, Brett Young, held up his hand. “George, you’ve proved your friendship to us many times. Just think of it as returning the favor. Now stand back and let us get started.”

George sat down, looking slightly lost. In three minutes, a little factory was set up with a dozen kids bouncing around like popcorn in a popper. George watched, almost in a daze.

“Still feeling like an ant?” I shouted across the room.

“Not at all. I’m feeling like, well, the Peeples Choice!”

Three hours later, the Peeples campaign was in possession of four beautiful banners, a dozen posters, and 200 campaign tags.

The priests and Laurels also left behind one important intangible—a big dose of enthusiasm. “The confidence is back,” I told George. “Let’s go knock on some doors.”

“We’ll help,” Brett volunteered. “You won’t make it to every student’s house by next week. We can split into twos and cover the ground you won’t get to.”

Looking back, that night was the turning point. At school the next day, you couldn’t look anywhere without seeing “The Peeples Choice” hanging from a wall or ceiling, or proclaimed on a tag on someone’s clothing. We were gaining momentum. “It looks like you and Casey are giving Eric a run for his money,” Mr. Carello told us in a hallway. I saw Eric a few times that week. Underneath his cool, poised exterior, I detected a trace of anxiousness. As an athlete, he knew what could happen when the opposition mounted a fourth-quarter charge.

Suddenly, it seemed, the day before elections arrived. We had our last meeting. “We’ll finish the door-to-door work this afternoon,” reported Brett. “We’ll be close to visiting 90 percent of all Westmont students by the time you sit down for supper.”

“Great work,” George acknowledged happily.

“What about your campaign speech?” I asked George. Before the elections, an assembly was held and all the candidates addressed the student body. “Do you need help with it?”

“I don’t think so. I talked it over with Dad, and he said the best speeches are those that come from the heart. I’ll work on it tonight.”

“You’d better,” Brett advised, “because the assembly is the first thing tomorrow.”

“Nobody knows that better than I do,” George replied.

I lost track of George that afternoon. It was just as well. The campaign had taken a toll on my homework. So when my last class was over, I did the heroic thing and trudged to the library. I studied until about 6:00 P.M. and then made my way down the quiet hallways.

I passed by the gymnasium. A door was open. Inside, a girl was practicing a cheerleading routine, ending with some very polished handsprings. I watched until Tracy McNeil finished only a few feet away from me. She looked up, startled to see someone watching her. “Caught in the act,” she said, her face flushed from the workout. “Tryouts are in two weeks. I need a little work.” She frowned, feigning anger. “You know this is all George’s fault. He gave me that little boost. And whether I make the cheerleading squad or not, I’m glad that I’m trying. Better to know than always wonder,” she said, letting out a breath of air that ruffled her bangs.

“George does seem to bring out the best in people,” I said. “Need a campaign manager? I’ve put together quite a machine for George.”

“A campaign manager for cheerleader?” She laughed. “No, I don’t think so. But if I change my mind, you’ll get a call.” Tracy was done practicing. Since it was getting dark, and since I knew George would approve because he’s also a gentleman, I walked Tracy to her house. “Good luck tomorrow,” she wished before disappearing behind her front door.

I arrived home 20 minutes later, convinced that I never was that crazy about Linda Helmers in the sixth grade anyway.

Excitement rippled up and down the hallways at school the following morning. Everyone was talking about the elections. You couldn’t turn anywhere without seeing a horde of students wearing Touchdown Torrington or Peeples Choice tags.

In the school auditorium, the first row was reserved for all the candidates. I took a seat right behind George. He looked sharper than I’ve ever seen him. He wore a new, gray, pin-striped suit with a red necktie.

“This is it,” I said, settling in behind him. “Got your speech?”

“No.”

“What?”

“I’m going on instincts. I’ll know what to say when I get up there.”

“Are you out of your mind?”

“Trust me. Whatever I say will be right from the heart. I hope.”

The assembly started. Mr. Carello announced the candidates for president and said that Eric would lead off. Eric strode confidently to the podium, amid some encouraging shouts from around the room. He had on a white linen sport jacket, beige slacks, and a light blue shirt. He looked, well, like Eric. Cool. Sophisticated. Very in.

“I’m a natural leader,” he began. “I’ve proved it on the field, and now I’m ready to prove it off the field. When it’s fourth and inches and the game is on the line, you want someone who can take charge. I’ve been there. And hey, I took charge.”

He went on, playing the football theme to the hilt. Some of his pals in the audience let out an occasional whoop or whistle. “So you want to be a winner? Vote Torrington. Join the Torrington team. And together, we’ll be invincible,” he concluded. Right on cue, a bunch of his friends immediately jumped up and started clapping.

“Some campaign manager you’ve got,” I groaned to George. “I didn’t even think ahead to plant some people in the audience to give you a standing ovation.”

“No problem,” George said serenely, standing. He walked to the podium slowly. He stood there for several seconds, saying nothing. My stomach did some Tracy McNeil-like backflips. There were some nervous coughs. Finally, George began to speak.

“Over the last few weeks, I’ve visited many of you in your homes. Based on those visits, I’ve concluded one thing: You are winners now, and you don’t need to prove it by voting for one candidate or another …”

Cheering simultaneously broke out all over the auditorium. George smiled and waited for the noise to die down. “I know what it’s like to come to school and wonder if you’re important. To me, all of you are. We can make this school a place where we look forward to coming each day, to learn, and to see friends. I’m running for student-body president because, together—” George paused and nodded slightly “—we can make a difference.”

George elaborated on his plans—to expand the student store, to form the scholarship committee, and his idea for an intramural sports league where desire, not ability, was the only qualification for participation. You could have heard a cricket chirp as he spoke—it was that quiet. It was clear to anyone who was half-awake that George’s ideas and plans far surpassed Eric’s efforts. Then George finished. “Just do this. Think about the two candidates. Then vote for the one you think will truly best serve you.”

Applause erupted. I noticed someone standing behind me and to the left. It was Mark Crane, the very first person George and I talked with. Brett was on his feet, quickly joined by other friends from church. It was contagious. Tracy stood, and most shocking of all, Libby and some of her pals began clapping and shouting. From the back of the long, large room thundered the most thrilling sound of all. A chant, growing stronger. “Peeples … Peeples … PEEPLES! … PEEPLES!!!” Shivers shot up my spine as George walked back to the front row.

“Can you believe it?” I shouted to George, who grinned and turned to face the student body, his hands held high over his head.

For the first time, I believed that George might actually win.

George would have been a great student-body president, maybe the best ever at our school. If only he had the chance. Close doesn’t count in elections; neither does who is most deserving. Mr. Carello’s face told it all as he came out of his office to announce the results after school. He looked slightly disappointed, a fact not lost on George.

“He doesn’t even have to say it,” George whispered glumly. “Eric won.”

Mr. Carello cleared his throat. “For student-body president, Eric Torrington, 353 votes, George Peeples, 344. Congratulations, Eric. A burst of backpounding broke out in Eric’s corner of the room. George walked over, smiling to hide his hurting.

“Thanks, George,” Eric said, shaking George’s hand. “You gave me a big scare. Another day or two, you would have won. You’re a class act, Peeples.”

Mr. Carello pulled George aside. “You gave it a good try. I do plan to follow up on some of your ideas. We’ll need a student leader on the scholarship committee. I hope that you’ll consider the position.”

“Thanks, Mr. Carello.”

Friends consoled George. We left after ten minutes or so, starting the long walk home. Rain began to fall.

“You did great, George. Nobody gave you a chance, but you almost pulled it off. And look at the good things that came out of it. You made some friends. Tracy will be a cheerleader, no doubt. You gave people confidence. And that was the best priest and Laurel activity we’ve had in a while.”

“I suppose you’re right, Casey, but it’s hard not to be disappointed,” he said.

Normally I can fight off noble urges pretty well, but I was getting desperate to cheer up my friend. “I think Tracy would like you to ask her out.”

It didn’t even phase him. “That’s nice,” George mumbled.

We were quite a pair, walking in the rain, our heads down. After what seemed like an hour, we reached our street. “Look George, you should be proud. You weren’t elected, but you’re still a winner.”

He nodded a little. “Thanks for your help. You were a great campaign manager. Right now, though, I need to go somewhere quiet and think through some things. I’ll be fine, but it may be a few days before I smile again.”

He turned to his house, a forlorn figure on a gray evening. I went to my room, stretched across my bed, and spent a few reflective seconds thinking of the day’s events.

My peace was short-lived. It was shattered by an explosion coming from the Peeples’s house. I bounded off the bed and dashed down the stairs to the street. I saw Libby bolting from the house, looking disgusted. “You’ve done it this time, Ralphie! For a kid so smart, how could you do something so dumb! Dad’s going to ground you until your mission!”

Ralphie tore out of the house right behind his sister. I grabbed Libby’s arm. “What in the world is going on?”

“It’s Ralphie, the boy genius,” she hissed. “Mom’s picking up Dad at the airport. Ralphie’s been told a million times not to use his chemistry set when they’re gone. But he got into it and there was a horrible bang. I mean cups and plates fell out of the cupboards, and books off their shelves. And his ant farm. It fell and cracked, and now there’s about 50,000 ants running everywhere. Ralphie’s never going to get out of this one!”

I rushed by the panic-stricken Ralphie into the house. I turned to the kitchen. The sight was unforgettable—George, wet hair plastered on his forehead, in his soggy suit, down on the floor with the sugar bowl in his hands, sprinkling white granules and urging, “Here ants! Come and get the sugar! Ummm, good!” He looked up at me and hurriedly explained, “Got to capture these ants before my parents get home. Ralphie’s entire future is at stake. Just don’t stand there, help me!”

I started to chuckle, and then George, realizing how it must have all looked, began giggling. He sat back in a mess of sugar, a couple of ants clambering up his red tie. We laughed until we both had headaches.

“George, I don’t even need to say it.”

“Go ahead anyway, Casey.”

“You are someone who makes a difference. And always will.”

With that, I grabbed some sugar in my hand and started calling ants in the very best way that I could.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Paul Mann