Connor McCord, a freshman at Princeton University, served as the student representative on the Leon County School Board in Tallahassee, FL, while in high school.

Taking my seat behind the dais for the first time, I look toward the other school board members: Warm, friendly smiles radiate from the colleagues I would soon grow to admire. Before the start of my senior year of high school, I applied for a position as the student representative of the Leon County School Board in Tallahassee, FL. When I first read the responsibilities associated with this role, I remember feeling immensely intimidated; the student selected for this position would represent thousands of students from across the county. My natural curiosity, however, outweighed my anxiety, and I steeled my resolve to apply.

As I look back on this decision, I realize that this curiosity was layered: I felt curious about the possibility of engaging in public service, which is something I had seldom experienced or contemplated prior to this occasion. I felt curious about the prospects of stepping outside of my comfort zone, as I had not branched out often throughout my previous years of high school. And, most notably, I felt curious about learning firsthand what the representatives of the school board, whose names and faces I had seen so often, were like in person. Superintendent Rocky Hanna and school board members Alva Striplin, Rosanne Wood, Darryl Jones, Georgia “Joy” Bowen, and DeeDee Rasmussen were all names I was familiar with.

Still, I knew virtually nothing about who they really were. What kind of lives did they lead? What were they like when the cameras were off? What moral values encompassed their actions? Soon enough, I would learn the answers to these questions after I began attending biweekly meetings at the historic Aquilina Howell Building as the new student representative.

The Intersection of Local Politics and Education

Upon finding out I had been selected, I immediately began to experience firsthand the intersection between local politics and education—I was thrust into a world I had only a cursory knowledge of. The mountain of education policy I encountered seemed insurmountable from my vantage point, and the vitriolic discourse surrounding contentious topics overwhelmed me at first.

Most notably, our county’s policy on masks became a widely debated issue by the time I joined the school board. As the mask mandate in Florida was lifted, counties that did not comply would risk losing significant funding; federal aid was weaponized against school boards across the state. However, the superintendent and members of my county’s school board were much more concerned about maintaining a healthy environment conducive to learning. In other words, they chose to closely monitor transmission rates before they would even consider dropping the mask mandate for children in grades K–8.

In the greater Leon County community, there was no clear consensus on what our response should have been. Everyone I talked to, from parents to students alike, stood on either side of this issue. Because of this polarization, conflict became inevitable. During the public comments section of the first few school board meetings I attended, parents would gather, and many would give speeches that would devolve into verbal attacks against the superintendent and each school board member. For hours on end, I would listen as every action our school board had taken was scrutinized heavily; nothing they did would ever find universal support. On a few occasions, some parents even had to be forcibly removed from the building for egregious outbursts. Despite all this pressure and backlash, each board member did not let the impacts of these words show on their faces. Rather, they focused on what mattered most to them: the students.

One incident in particular reflected their laser-like focus on doing what’s best for kids and revealed to me the board members’ true character. During one meeting that unruly parents attended, a student was invited to come before the board. Despite the student’s young age, he had already accomplished a great deal in our community. With his own nonprofit, this student was promoting literacy across the county, and he came to the board that night to be formally recognized for his efforts. As soon as he entered the room, I could see the eyes of everyone behind the dais light up. What followed was vastly different from previous meetings. As soon as he began talking with the board members, the tension in the air dissipated; they all seemed reinvigorated by finally being able to talk with a student.

When I looked over at Chairman Darryl Jones, I noticed something: It appeared as though he quietly began to shed a few tears. He then expressed to those in attendance that, at times, it was nice to be reminded of the reason why he was still motivated to serve Leon County. Hearing these words, I realized something critical. Despite all the hate he received, he endured it all for the sake of bettering the quality of education students receive. When I looked at the superintendent and the rest of the school board members, I could see the emotional impact the chairman’s words had on them. As they all had dedicated their lives to improving education for students countywide, being able to see these students succeed became the ultimate reward for their hard work. This fact became apparent that night to me.

Even now, I continue to stand in awe of their service to our community. With each passing meeting, I grew to know and admire each board member even more. Through their support, these colleagues would even help me through one of the most difficult experiences in my life: the death of my brother.

A Vast Support Network

After being involved in a car accident, my older brother suffered severe head trauma. My family and I were told quite early that his prognosis was grim: He wasn’t going to survive. While staying by my brother’s bedside in a hospital room, something unexpected happened. Both district staff and members of the school board personally reached out to me and my family. When my father had passed away a few years before this, I had not received nearly as much immediate support. The countless messages I received from my school board colleagues in the wake of this tragedy helped me through another dark moment in my life, and I would not be the same person I am today without their help.

One message I fondly remember from school board member DeeDee Rasmussen touched my heart deeply. Along with a message, she sent me a video of a speech she delivered at a high school graduation a few years prior. In this speech, she discussed coping with the loss of her father during her senior year of high school, and it aided me greatly in coming to terms with my grief. At that moment, I did not feel alone. Rather, I felt as though I had a vast support network of people looking out for me, which comforted me given the circumstances. Before then, I had never considered the relationships I had been building with these pillars of my community; it was easy to forget at times. When I returned to the next school board meeting, I was greeted with a hug by Superintendent Hanna, and I still remember the thoughtfulness of that small gesture.

Looking back now on my final year of high school, I do not regret spending countless nights at these school board meetings. Each interaction I had with my colleagues has shaped my values and how I currently live my life. Hearing the passion in Chairman Jones’ speeches reminded me to always be true to myself and to stand up for what I believe in. Board member Rasmussen’s thoughtful messages reminded me of the importance of empathy—to reach out and offer support to others in their time of need. Board member Bowen’s laugh reminded me to be brave enough to smile in the face of adversity. Board member Striplin’s honesty reminded me of how virtuous integrity is. Board member Wood’s carefully thought-out responses reminded me to prudently consider the decisions I make. And Superintendent Hanna’s warm embrace reminded me that even small gestures can be the most meaningful ones.

When I saw them all for the last time at my high school graduation, I shook their hands while promising myself that I would carry their values with me into the future. All around the country, leaders in education devote themselves to strengthening teaching and learning, and it is often a thankless role. Having worked with such leaders up close, I can say without a doubt that they have my undying respect and thanks.

Connor McCord is a freshman at Princeton University and a graduate of Lincoln High School in Tallahassee, FL, where he was a member of the National Honor Society.