Valuable Exercise

The campaign Will Smith launched is more than a civics lesson. It honors his family's way of life.

February 06, 2002|By Larry Bingham | Larry Bingham,SUN STAFF

t came about like this, as best the kid can remember: He and his dad were sitting at the computer one day last year, fiddling around on the Maryland Web page, looking at the state's symbols.

They saw the state bird, the Baltimore Oriole.

The crustacean, the blue crab.

The boat, the skipjack.

Milk, they saw, is the state drink.

"Walking," the kid said to his father, "should be the state exercise."

That's the kid's story. And isn't there always a kid story in the General Assembly?

This year, the kid is Will Smith. He's 8 years old, lives in Silver Spring and is a third-grader at East Silver Spring Elementary School.

But he's not a kid who would pursue a state symbol for the sake of adding another between dog (Chesapeake Bay retriever) and flower (black-eyed Susan). For him, walking is more than an exercise. It's a symbol of his way of life.

When the inspiration came to him and he told his dad, Bill Smith said, "That's not a bad idea. We should talk to your teachers."

His dad knew how important walking was to their family. He knew it was why they chose their house on Sligo Avenue when they moved from downtown D.C. - because it was close to the Metro, the bus stop, the corner store, the elementary school and the church.

Will's teacher, Melissa Gersh, knew how much walking meant to them, too. So when Will shared his idea with her, she understood it came from the heart. (She also realized it would fit her "writing to inform" curriculum and serve as a civics lesson, even if her kids won't study state government until the fourth grade).

When Miss Gersh explained to her students what they were about to do, most had no idea what a senator or delegate does or where Annapolis is. When she said the word "bill," a few said they already knew someone named Bill.

Clearly, this would be an education.

The entire third grade participated: They brainstormed about the benefits of walking, organized their points, wrote letter drafts, gave each other feedback, nailed down their arguments, then launched their campaign.

They promoted the physical side.

"Walking is good because it doesn't pollute the population," wrote Victor Bonilla.

"We'll have less traffic," wrote Nevile Tiller. "We won't cause gas and bacteria to mix together and have problems."

"It gives weak people exercise and gets people strong and very healthy," wrote Dakari Abramham. "Because if people did not have exercise they will be humongous and very truly fat."

They highlighted the social benefits.

"You get to know nature and your surroundings better when you walk. You can also spend more time with your family," wrote Emily Haislip.

"Some people walk to talk to each other," wrote Dennis Navarrate. "Some people go walking to the store and buy ice cream."

Jenice Rubio wrote, "While people walk, they could see other people walking and they could meet each other. If you have a dog, you could take it for a walk and then people would like to pet it."

No loophole was left open.

"It can improve the risk of car accidents," wrote Michael Douglas.

"Walking should be our state exercise because walking is free!" exclaimed Hannah Kenton.

"You can walk with friends or by yourself," wrote Emma Gorin. "Just put one foot in front of the other and you'll get the hang of it."

Miss Gersh reminded her pupils not to sign "Love" before their names. "Sincerely," she explained, was more appropriate.

While the letters were being written, Will's dad made calls to lawmakers. The first declined to sponsor the bill, saying he didn't want to be known as "the symbol" legislator.

The sincerity of the letters helped persuade another representative, Del. William Bronrott.

He tooled with the words, writing, "WHEREAS, Heart disease is the number one cause of death each year in Maryland ... and WHEREAS, Health care costs related to cardiovascular disease in Maryland are $2.25 billion yearly ... "

Then he introduced the bill earlier this session, and seven kids will go to Annapolis to testify at the Commerce and Government Matters Committee hearing later this month, on Feb. 20.

Will Smith has not decided yet what he will say, but he's not nervous. (And he doesn't even know how much legislators adore kids, or the effect his big eyes and freckles will have.)

He saw his dad testify last year for a bill that would study safer routes around schools. He has watched him organize "Walk to School" days since he was in kindergarten. And he saw his dad work to get more sidewalks, new crosswalk signs and a driveway for parents to drop off their kids at his school.

Plus, Will has plenty to say about walking because his family doesn't own a car.

His dad stopped driving in 1989, when macular degeneration made him legally blind. His mom has never owned a car, having grown up in Philadelphia, dependent on public transportation, and having never learned to drive.

Other than walking almost everywhere he goes, Will is similar to most kids his age. He likes the Pokemon movie; he last read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; he favors Ho-Hos at snack time; his favorite time of the school day is "dismissal"; his feet don't completely reach the ground when he sits on the bench on the playground.

But this is where he differs from many kids: Will won't mind if his bill fails.

And that may be a good thing, because the chances are 50-50, if last year is any indication. A girl's bill to make the calico the state cat passed, but a fifth-grade class's effort to make the azalea the state shrub failed.

As far as Will is concerned, he already has succeeded. He has been interviewed by three newspapers, two television stations and one radio program.

He had an idea about something important to him, he wrote a letter, then someone responded. His voice was heard.

That doesn't always happen, especially when you're a kid.

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