It all started with a late-night phone conversation.
Rachel Watson and her good friend Adrian Washington argued about everything, from the serious to the trivial. One night last February, they bickered about a certain explosive word that begins with an "N," one that is commonly used by their black classmates at University City High School.
Washington, then a senior, thought the word should be reclaimed by blacks in order to diminish its power, just as gays have subverted the word "queer." Watson, a junior, disagreed and challenged him to bring their debate to the editorial page of their school newspaper.
"[The word's] connotation is so volatile, that any deeper meaning or new sense of the word gets overshadowed by the intensity of the debate surrounding it," Watson wrote in U-Times. "If for three hundred years, hatred, degradation and shame were tied to the word 'cupcake,' then I'm sure it, too, would be bleeped out on music videos and TV shows."
The editorials were published the week before spring break, Watson's under the headline "Cupcakes and 'Niggas.'" "We didn't think anybody would read it," Watson says now. But once classes resumed, students read it. Teachers read it. Administrators read it. For a full month, heated discussions transpired in classrooms throughout the school.
"There was a lot of irrational anger," Watson, now seventeen, recalls. "But kids say it during the school day and teachers don't have a problem [with it]." Assistant principal Chris Blumenhorst explains that the problem was that the word itself had actually been spelled out in the student paper, which prompted some teachers to consider expelling Watson and Washington.
"I wish they had," Watson says. "It would have looked cool." In the end, the administration decided that, in the future, the principal would vet all articles before the paper went to press.
The incident earned Watson the nickname "Cupcake." With round cheeks and large brown eyes, Watson does indeed look more like a cupcake than a rabble-rouser. She plays volleyball and is trying to organize a girls' lacrosse team.
"When Rachel sees something to be done, she feels the need to do it," says her mother Monica, at which Rachel rolls her eyes, fiddles with her jacket and looks as though she'd rather be elsewhere.
Watson says she doesn't mean to cause trouble. She spends a lot of her time trying to enact changes through more established channels, like student government. "She always follows the rule book," notes her close friend Alexis Jamerson.
Last spring, Watson was elected student council president. She was also appointed teen representative to the University City City Council. The second job came as a surprise. City manager Julie Feier and superintendent Joylynn Wilson decided to place her on the council in order to forge a closer connection between the school and the city. Because she was already an elected student leader, Watson was a natural choice.
As the student representative, Watson doesn't have a vote, though the council does ask for her opinion on matters that relate to teenagers — for instance, last summer's Heman Park party incident. The city fired ten lifeguards — nearly one-third of its staff — after the guards threw an after-hours pool party on the Fourth of July. Angry parents protested the firing at the next city council meeting and Watson was asked her thoughts on the matter.
"I think the punishment was fair," she says. "They broke the laws, they were drinking and trespassing, and they posted pictures on Facebook. They were swimming in the dark, drunk, and then they drove home. Losing their jobs was not the worst thing that could have happened. If those kids had been black, they'd be in jail."
Lately, though, Watson has been avoiding city council meetings. She feels dissatisfied with her role there. "It's not as conducive as I thought it would be," she says. "I don't get to do anything." Instead, she is trying to form a coalition of student leaders from eleven area schools, including St. Joseph's, Cardinal Ritter and John Burroughs, to plan activities to bring the students together. This has not, she admits, gone as well as she has hoped because it has proven impossible to actually schedule a meeting.
In the meantime, Watson has been devoting much of her energy to governing University City High. Last fall, the school achieved national notoriety when it elected a male, Aaron Zaggy, homecoming queen. The traditionalists among the U. City student body, and the community in general, were offended. At a student council meeting, Watson put the matter to a vote.
"Everybody had the ability to voice their opinion," says Blumenhorst. "They voted overwhelmingly for a male king and a female queen. The smart thing was, Rachel worked with the student council executive board to write a statement [about the vote]. Feelings ran deep in the district. People were upset. So Rachel had Julian Nix, the student representative to the board of education, read the statement at the next school board meeting before anyone else could speak. It caught everybody off-guard. It defused the situation."
"She handled it very well," Jamerson says. "She was upset, of course, but she went through the right procedures."
More frustrating has been the matter of the school store. Watson and some of her student council cohorts decided to sell U. City High T-shirts and sweatshirts in the hope of boosting school spirit. The school allotted them a closet.
"Last summer we painted and cleaned," Watson recalls. "We laid down carpet. We made everything black and gold."
But the store had no money to pay for its initial stock. Watson had to navigate a maze of school budgets. The student council budget had been combined with that of the class councils. "Rachel made the student council an independent agency," Blumenhorst explains. "It's a new thing."
Her wrangling with the school business office brought Watson into the nastier world of adult politics. Watson and her executive board wrote a letter requesting funds. Soon after, an anonymous letter appeared in mailboxes around University City. It claimed that Watson's father, Avery, who had made enemies through his work on the University City Board of Education, had written the letter and had Watson sign her name to it.
"It was truly an effort to retaliate against [Avery]," says Monica Watson, "and they used her to do it."
"It was so high school," Rachel says.
In the end, Blumenhorst lent the student council money from his activities budget, and the store opened as planned. Though only open on basketball game days, it has already sold out its stock.
Watson's experiences on student council have given her a taste for public affairs, a subject she plans to study at college next year. (She hopes to attend Northwestern.) Though she enjoys politics — she supports Barack Obama in the current election — she's more interested in using government to bring people together.
"She has the ability to connect to a lot of different groups," Blumenhorst says.
Originally, Watson had not planned to attend University City High. She had enrolled at Cardinal Ritter as a freshman, but after her father was laid off from his job in software support, she had to transfer. But Watson doesn't think she would be much different if she'd stayed at Ritter. "It's my personality," she says. "There's no button to turn me off."
Nonetheless, she's ready to move on. In a recent issue of U-Times devoted to senior resolutions, she wrote: "I'm ready to leave." "People said, 'You can't say that, you're the student council president!'" She shrugs. "It's true."