Quite a few years ago now — long ago enough that those involved have since graduated high school — a group of 15 3rd- and 4th-graders at Wells Memorial School in Harrisville, led by teacher Kathy Haley-Frick, took an unusual approach to learning civics. They famously pushed a bill through the Legislature to name the pumpkin as New Hampshire’s state fruit.
The students learned about the legislative process firsthand, writing letters, compiling history and appearing before the House Environment and Agriculture Committee with prepared testimony, lauding the great pumpkin with a fervor that would have made Linus Van Pelt proud. Charmed by the offensive, and lacking any reason to do otherwise, lawmakers agreed.
The effort led to a run of school classes pushing the Legislature to name “official” everything from songs (“Live Free or Die” by Barry Palmer) to dogs (the Chinook) to fossils (the mastodon) to vegetables (the white potato; take that, Maine!).
Later attempts to replicate the feat were met with more resistance. A 2010 attempt by Jaffrey Grade School students to have apple cider named the official state drink received pushback from the dairy industry, fronted by students at Gilford Elementary School.
And in 2015, apparently fed up with the parade of civic-minded students through their chambers, a few legislators actually chastised a class of Hampton Falls 4th-graders seeking to have the red-tailed hawk named the state raptor. Worse, one lawmaker used the circumstances to try to score political points by comparing hawks catching their prey to abortion procedures. The Hampton Falls students were sent packing (though this year, the Legislature did indeed name the red-tailed hawk the state raptor — approving a bill pushed by those same now-8th-grade students).
That episode aside, these “real life” civics projects typically make for heartwarming news and serve as a reminder that it’s never too early to start learning how government works.
Of course, our form of government also includes elections. And that brings us to the recent story of Patrick Lavoie of Stoddard.
Patrick, who usually goes by Pat, was recently named to the N.H. Kid Executive Council, by virtue of finishing among the top seven in the annual state Kid Governor race. The program, based on a similar one started in Connecticut, is run by the N.H. Institute for Civics Education and the N.H. Institute of Politics. It calls on 5th-graders to mount a campaign, running on a key issue and including a campaign video outlining the issue and how they would approach dealing with it. None of the videos we saw, notably, could be deemed “attack ads.”
Participating classes all over the state watch the videos and vote.
Pat, backed by his 37 fellow students at James Faulkner Elementary School, ran on a platform of curbing underage tobacco use. The winner, and 2020 Kid Governor, was Suzy Brand of Sant Bani School, Sanbornton, whose issue was children’s health and time outdoors.
Pat, Suzy and five others were chosen as finalists by a committee of civics and educational professionals. So, that, at least, doesn’t mirror the actual political process, unless you believe the political parties are choosing the national candidates heedless of voters’ wishes. That’s all we’ll say on that point.
In any case, congratulations to Suzy, who now has the task of trying to follow through in pushing her platform issue. We hope she keeps her veto pen pocketed.
As for Pat and his fellow executive councilors, they’ll meet with Suzy to advise her, but won’t vote on contracts and appointments — as she won’t be making any. But mimicking the actual Executive Council isn’t the point, after all. As the program’s literature notes, “The lessons inspire students to be lifelong agents of change, active participants in our government, and registered voters when they turn 18.”
That’s a worthwhile goal in itself. And as real-life civic engagement goes, at least these would-be chief executives won’t get yelled at by frustrated lawmakers.