Paradoxically normal politicians
April 6, 2007
__Newly elected SA execs Zach Pilchen and Valerie Hopkins open up about everything from the campaign to kayaks__
p. Daffodils thrust cheerful faces toward the sun and birds sang overhead as I watched students traipse through the Sunken Garden, looking simultaneously stunned and deliriously happy about Williamsburg’s early spring. Pink petals drifted through the light-drenched afternoon while leaves rustled and green shoots stirred with new life. I could not help but think, as I watched sophomore Zach Pilchen stride across the Crim Dell Meadow, that our campus is quite a world for the new Student Assembly president to inherit.
p. Zach’s broad smile and warm handshake were as full of potential as the day itself. As a woefully out-of-touch senior, I was surprised by Zach’s approachable languor, the casual shrug with which he confirmed that, yes, he had been napping until about five minutes ago. “Great weather,” he added. We were basking in peaceful silence, two relative strangers enjoying a beautiful afternoon, when sophomore and wood nymph Valerie Hopkins materialized out of the woods and bounded over to meet us.
p. I have a great affinity for people who use exclamation marks in their e-mails, and Valerie is just that type of girl. Sprightly and energetic, she introduced herself with a beaming grin that never left her face, even when the photographer asked her to be serious. Like the flowing dress and gold baubles she wore, Valerie was cheerful and bright. Her irrepressible enthusiasm nicely foiled Zach’s casual straightforwardness. As the pair scrambled up a tree to take pictures, I became aware of how awkwardly serious I felt, how unsuitable a hard-hitting interview would be with such paradoxically normal politicians. Instead of giving reign to my typically frenzied journalistic zeal and grasping at the hem of campus celebrity like a lifeline, I decided to level with them.
p. “So how did you two meet?” I asked, in my best obnoxious-aunt-at-holiday-dinner voice.
p. “Ah, no one ever asks that!” Valerie exclaimed. She looked at Zach. “I’ll talk about this. The summer after freshman year of high school, we both went to an enrichment program in the nether regions of Virginia (at U.Va.). I was there taking a course in activism and Zach was taking a comedy class. Even though we’re both from Arlington, we met then.”
p. “It wasn’t until last year that we met here, though,” Zach explained.
p. Valerie nodded. “I remember he came by my room during his campaign for senate freshman year — which he lost, by the way,” she said, giving him a sidelong glance and laughing. Zach rolled his eyes slightly as she continued. “This year he won, though, and he came by Judicial Council hours to ask about a bill for his senate sub-committee. I think that was the first time anyone ever used office hours. From there we kept up a constructive debate.”
p. “Valerie told me she was interested in running for senate,” Zach explained, pushing up the sleeves of his T-shirt. “Frankly, I would have been intimidated to run against her. Through a series of events, I started to consider running for SA president, even though before this year I’d never held a position. Well, except in first grade, but I don’t know if that counts,” he said, his eyes bright with good humor. “Valerie and I had kept in touch, and we’d run into each other occasionally. She was the first person I thought of for a running partner.”
p. The sunlight shifted across the benches as the wind picked up in the trees. Valerie smiled, pleased at this idea, and leaned forward for emphasis. “Talking with Zach really got me passionate about Student Assembly issues. I realized that many of the students don’t have a clear enough understanding of what goes on on campus, and I wanted to change that. I think Zach and I actually ran into each other the day he decided to run for president. I was unsure for a long time — probably a lot longer than I admitted to anyone. If you had asked me five months ago about this,” she said, twisting her long hair around her finger and looking incredulous, “I would have said never in a million years would I be where I am today. Never in a million years.”
p. Valerie smiled again in the ensuing silence as I scribbled on my clipboard. Zach seemed lost in his thoughts, staring into space beyond the Sunken Garden. They must be so tired, I thought, lapsing into my usual older-not-wiser-but-sympathetic senior mentality. This was a big deal. This was the College’s future.
“What was the hardest part of the campaign?” I asked.
p. Zach abruptly turned to fix me with his amiably powerful stare. “The endurance it required … was only 10 days of campaigning, but it felt so much longer.”
p. Valerie cut in with agreement. “The days crawled by. I lost my appetite and forgot to shower. Sorry,” she said, laughing and wrinkling her nose at the admission. “We spent a lot of time doing stuff that would normally be delegated to other people. Stuff like cutting palm cards, which I did most of because Zach was so bad at it.”
p. “I’m really bad at cutting things,” he grinned, not looking sorry in the slightest.
p. Valerie continued. “We actually started having the same thoughts at the same time. I never got sick of him, though. In fact, he became one of my closest friends at school.” Turning to her running mate, the brunette patted his shoulder with her ever-present smile.
p. Zach put his hand over his heart. “Thank you, Valerie.”
“Is this campaign election something you will use in the future, do you think?” I asked.
p. They both looked at me, and it appeared they had the same thought. Zach spoke first. “Honestly, I think in the larger world there are a lot better ways to help people than getting bogged down in politics. At William and Mary, though, it’s different. I love this school, and I hope we can show students that this is something that should be important to them.”
p. Valerie nodded. “I agree with Zach. I don’t necessarily want to go into politics, and it’s hard to say what we will learn from these experiences. But I’ve already grown and changed a lot, and no matter what, this will mean a great deal to me.”
p. There was a small pause as she picked a leaf off his kneecap.
p. “So if this was a perfect world,” I asked, “what would you do on a day like today? Besides hoping for an interview with the student newspaper, obviously.”
p. They both smiled, and I was pleased with myself. Valerie spoke first. “Zach would probably go kayaking,” she grinned.
p. Zach nodded. “I have a nine-and-a-half foot kayak in my room. It’s pretty unwieldy.” He looked at me conspiratorially. “I sneak it down to Matoaka whenever I can, especially at night.” He settled back in his seat and folded his arms across his chest, satisfied.
p. Valerie looked around at the brightness on all sides. “I don’t usually know what I’m going to do two hours before I do it. I’d read. I’d climb a tree. Oh, is that too boring?” She looked to Zach whose expression was encouraging. “I know. I’d have an adventure.”
p. Then she smiled to herself, looking as satisfied as Zach. I folded away my papers and pens and gathered myself up. I thanked them for the interview and started to walk away, leaving them to the sunshine and cascading petals of this new season. Just before I reached the crest of the hill I turned around. “Good luck with everything,” I called out. “It was really lovely to meet you both.” And I meant it.