In Which I Go to Philadelphia, Wear Shoes That Really Hurt, and Win a Golden Gavel: Part One

Originally, this was going to be one long post, but it quickly became too long to write in one day. I will now force you to read this story in parts.

On the morning of Thursday, March, 31st, I happily and nervously trotted off to school, wheeling my red suitcase and wearing my Dad’s old Jonathan Edwards Residential College tee shirt in celebration of Cecelia being accepted into Yale.

As I yanked my bag up the steps outside of the auditorium and pulled it into the coat check room, I bemoaned how weak my arms are. I mean, you could easily fasten a watch around my upper arm, and they start shivering anytime I try to lift something around thrity pounds above shoulder height. Carrying small children can be a real struggle, which is a major problem if you’re babysitting. But all that aside, I parked my bag and wandered towards the main building through the art gallery filled with pictures that I wish that I could have created.

There were little elves taking up residence in my abdomen, and as I walked and thought about the conference, they started hopping around and doing jumping-jacks. Like most enjoyable things that I do, Model Congress makes me equally anxious, excited, and happy. Even though I was going to be in school until lunch, the whole day felt different, which was probably due the fact that I wasn’t carrying a backpack. Instead, I had my big black bucket tote from Neiman Marcus from Obama’s inauguration. Stacked in between my English binder and a collection of John Donne’s poems, the binder full of research kept singing to me about how someone was going to find a loop-hole in my bill and how if I didn’t know the percentage of jailed drug abusers, I would immediately be sent home in shame. But I walked on, dragging my feet up the stairs to the library.

In English, I desperately tried to stay on task and write about a comparisons of Donne’s Holy Sonnets to his earlier ones, but it really was no use. The anxiety of in-class writing coupled with concerns about Model Congress turned my brain into jammed machinery, and I only succeeded in writing an outline and good introduction.

At lunch, I dragged Clara with me to go buy pizza with my babysitting money. It was drizzling, and the pizza was steaming, and I was struck once again by how much better hot food tastes when it’s chilly out. But the pizza eating didn’t last long, and soon I was dragging my suitcase back down the auditorium steps and up to the back of the bus. As the boys pilled the suitcases into the back seats, I took up residence in a two-seater and quietly prayed that we’d get to Model Congress safely. The memories of the November bus crash still haunt me.

Thankfully, no one died, and only eleven people went to the hospital.

But the bus began moving, and I pulled out my binder to go over my research. As the highway mile-markers slid by, I highlighted statistics and practiced arguments in my head about gun control and immigration. People chatted and Tiny Wings was played. Soon, we were off the highway and driving through Philadelphia, and like every time I go there, I was shocked by the dichotomy between the beautiful downtown, Penn campus, and historic district and everywhere else. It’s depressed, and posters sag on dirty buildings in need of window washing and new paint.

At the hotel, I rode the elevator up to the eighth floor and walked with Tal to the room that we’d be sharing with two other girls. I unpacked, carefully smoothing out my dress clothes. There’s a certain comfort in unpacking. It makes you feel solid and safe. You’ve got a place that’s yours for the time being, and you don’t have to get up and move at a moment’s notice.

Outside again, our whole delegation walked to the sports bar we go to every year to get a very early dinner. I sat in the exact same seat that I had sat in two years before at the end of the table with my chair against the wall and across from Micah and next to John and Tal. I wasn’t the same girl I was back then. I’m maybe an inch taller, I weigh a little less, but I’ve done a heck of a lot more living. I’ve been through things younger me couldn’t even begin to comprehend. But in a way things hadn’t changed at all. Little me planned on going back to Penn Model Congress, sitting in that chair, and feeling nervous about debate.

Just like last time, we played the game where you write a person on a piece of paper, pass it to your neighbor, hold it up to your head, and ask yes or no questions until you figure out who it is. I had Pamela Anderson, who I know next to nothing about. Someone had to finally give me her initials. The whole debacle was just like Model UN this fall, when I had James Joyce stuck to my head, and someone told me that he was a social reformer. But the game was funny and made me laugh while I ate a bowl full of salad and a little Caesar dressing.

Back in the hotel, I picked up binder full of all the Green Senate bills and started going through the ones in my committee. With one hand firmly jammed in my hair, I cross referenced facts from my research, wrote down points, and outlined arguments. I was surprised by how poor a few of the bills were and thanked God that none of them were better than mine. Some of the worry wandered away, and I began to think that maybe I could do this. Soon enough, I was putting on my wrap dress and trying not to fall over while pulling up my stockings. I slid my feet into my pumps, grabbed my bag with both binders, and looked at myself in the mirror. This is what I’m going to look like as an adult, I thought, though hopefully I won’t be this nervous heading to the office.

As we walked across campus to Irving Auditorium, I repeated “I can do this. I am good at this. It will all be okay.” with each click of my heels on the stone path. Opening ceremonies began, and Joe Sestak gave an amazing speech. I nodded along when I discovered that our opinions about education policy are exactly the same. But the best part was when he was talking about the budget and how small programs that directly benefit the states and the people are being cut instead of military and other large program spending because of all a sudden he said: “It’s a pimple on an elephant.”

I laughed, and some of the anxiety washed away. But half an hour later, I was sitting in a classroom with fifteen other Senators feeling like the elves in my abdomen were having a rave and trying to claw their out through my stomach. I stood up to speak about the first bill and as always, thought that I sounded like a complete idiot. I began to cry, and as I tend do in public, let my hair cover my face as I slipped out of the room. This is it, I thought, Ella, you have seriously screwed up. And it really did feel like it was all a disaster, that I would be miserable for the next four days, and that I would go home royally embarrassed.

But Ashley was came out into the hallway and gave me a hug, and five minutes later, during his committee’s recess, Doc spoke to me. So after a few more minutes, I remembered Lady Macbeth, screwed my courage to the sticking point, decided that I would not fail, and marched back into the room. And things improved. They always do, even when it seems impossible. At the recess, I told the chairs about my anxiety disorder like a mature person, and did a tiny bit of socializing. I stood up to talk some more and used my research to make some great points.

Back at the hotel that evening, I relapsed and spent ten minutes sobbing. Pulling my act together, I promised myself that if half of tomorrow was as bad as tonight, I could call home. But the next morning was wonderful. We were in the Wharton School of Business, in a beautiful room, and I was in my element. I love talking to over a hundred people because no one is an individual anymore. It’s just me informing a mass of blurry faces. And I am pretty darn good at talking to blurry faces. I referenced and extolled the virtues of the Constitution, recalled New York Times and The Week articles from months ago, and wedged in a good deal of American history.

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