It Was a Teachable Moment

Posted October 27, 2008 at 2:11pm

A raised arm in her sixth-grade class usually brought a smile to elementary school teacher Tierney Cahill’s face. She loved to engage students in activities and stories that would bring her lessons alive. However, on one such occasion in the fall of 1999, a hand in the air brought on a major change in Cahill’s life when one 12-year-old student asked: “Why don’t you run for office?”

In Cahill’s Reno, Nev., classroom that day, a lesson on ancient Greece slowly turned into a talk about democracy and representative government. In the middle of a passage on the Greek general Pericles, the young girl interrupted to state that unlike ancient Greece, only millionaires, or people with connections to them, can get elected in the United States. When Cahill countered the assertion, the student asked her to prove it.

The then-33-year-old teacher subsequently embarked on a campaign that was run as a class project, with her sixth-graders acting as campaign managers so that they could better engage in the process.

What began as a school lesson would end in a campaign that cost her financially and personally as she ran as a Democratic candidate for Congress in Nevada’s 2nd district.

“Had I known what I was in for, I almost certainly would never have agreed to it,” Cahill wrote in a new book, co-written with Linden Gross, titled “Ms. Cahill for Congress: One Fearless Teacher, Her Sixth-Grade Class and the Election That Changed Their Lives Forever.” It precedes a film based on the story, slated to be filmed this spring, starring Halle Berry.

The true story is a quick read that focuses on Cahill’s run for office, while also including notes on the state’s politics and personal details on the lives of Cahill, her family and her class. It provides a daunting look at what an ordinary person could encounter in a run for office, including little time, mounting bills and a party that seemed to do anything but help those who aren’t anointed.

Overall, the campaign’s budget was $7,000, a stark contrast to the $750,000 that her opponent spent. Cahill didn’t receive any money from the Democratic Party and was shocked that they were unreceptive to her candidacy.

“I felt like I was the poster child for the party: public school teacher, union member, single mom working multiple jobs, my children are biracial,” she said in an interview. “I mean, I just thought, ‘Wow, I don’t know how I could better line up to who they say they represent.’”

In retrospect, she said she understands why the party remained wary.

“They didn’t know who was managing my campaign, and I’m sure when they found out it was a group of sixth-graders, that must have been terrifying,” she said.

But at the time, all Cahill knew was that she had to make ends meet on a modest salary, hardly enough to also run a campaign for office. At one point, she had to decide which of the essential bills she was going to pay and which had to be forfeited until next month. The campaign was also plagued with creepy phone calls, missing signs and a break-in at Cahill’s home, along with a large proportion of people who refused to take the run for office seriously.

Nevertheless, the story remains inspirational, as Cahill and the kids continued plugging away, traveling across the state, speaking to audiences and pounding the pavement to gain attention for the campaign in what ended up being a losing race. In the end, as she explains it to her class, it was never about winning, but about being able to do it at all.

The book wasn’t written with any particular audience in mind, though it could be an aid to teachers on the value of engaging students, Cahill said. At other points it is simply useful for learning more about politics. It provides an educational look at the system as Cahill made a number of trips around the state in her quest to get on the ballot.

Cahill didn’t stop with her loss in 2000. In 2004, she unsuccessfully ran for a seat in Nevada’s state Assembly. And she seems to have had some influence on her sixth-grade students, now in college. Some have chosen to study political science, remaining as captivated by the process as their former teacher.

Talk of the current presidential campaign causes Cahill to gleefully discuss her excitement about the long race to the White House. “It’s like the Super Bowl or something to me,” she said.

And it’s a process that she’s glad to have been a part of. “I love that an average person can still run for office in this country,” she said.