Phil Grapes furrowed his brow. He leaned back in his swivel chair. Only hours into his term as the new student representative to the Carroll County school board, he delivered a withering assessment of the public school system's grammar instruction.
"If I had to choose one thing that was extremely weak across the board, it is kids' use of grammar. It's terrible," the 17-year-old Liberty High School senior said as school board members smiled uncomfortably.
Sure, the British literature class in his junior year included a grammar unit, Grapes told them. "But I think that's another issue," he said. "Why, in Brit Lit, are we being taught grammar, when we probably should have been taught that in middle school?"
School officials had no specific answers for Grapes that night in June. But his inquiry confirmed what many already suspected: The bright, inquisitive teen-ager - like his predecessor, Doug Denison - appears more willing to speak his mind than other student representatives in recent years and is increasingly mindful that he gives voice to the 28,000 students in Carroll schools.
"I think people would question it and look at it like, `Wow,'" school board President Susan G. Holt said of Grapes' confidence in asserting his opinions to six elected officials, in a roomful of school administrators and with cable television cameras rolling. "But isn't that what he's supposed to do? We want honesty. We don't want a rubber-stamp of our own opinions."
Holt and her colleagues got their first taste of what the two most recent nonvoting student board members call "informed outspokenness" last year when Denison, a South Carroll High School junior, took his seat on the dais.
He attended not only evening board meetings but also as many afternoon workshops and joint sessions with the county commissioners as his class schedule permitted. He cast votes with the five adult board members - even though his own yea or nay did not count.
And he spoke up quickly and often. In doing so, Denison frequently infused with humor the hourslong meetings - which are sometimes so dull that Superintendent Charles I. Ecker quips the boardroom is where he learned to "sleep with his eyes open."
When Ecker suggested lengthening the school year to make up snow days and altering final exam schedules to ensure students attended class through the last day, Denison told the superintendent that that would be "a dirty thing to do."
He gently chided Holt, the board president, for the suggestion of pulling soda machines from schools in an attempt to improve students' health, telling her, "Kids do like soda."
And Denison offered insight that school administrators quoted for meetings to come when the board debated why so few high-schoolers who are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches apply for them.
"It's got a stigma attached to it," he said, adding that it's clear to anyone in the cafeteria line who gets the discounted lunches for low-income families. "High school is a brutal social environment, and just like anything else that's a stigma in high school, it's a problem."
Such frankness did nothing but impress school officials.
"He was not afraid to speak up," Ecker said. "Other students are a little shy or reluctant around adults. But he was not afraid to speak his mind, which I think is great."
Ecker worked with dozens of student representatives during 15 years as an administrator in Howard County schools. The most famous, he said, was Columbia native and now-Hollywood actor Edward Norton.
"He participated rather freely and easily," Ecker recalled of Norton. "Like Doug did."
That student perspective is an important one, Ecker explained.
"For a number of us, it's been a long time since we've been a teen-ager," the 74-year-old schools chief said. "Things certainly have changed since my day in the classroom, since board members' days in the classroom and since my days as a teacher. We don't know what's really happening in today's classrooms. ... You get that from someone like Doug or Phil telling you how it is."
Both young men take that role very seriously.
Denison, whose floppy hair and sleepy eyes belie the intense curiosity of a straight-A student who reads three newspapers a day - starting with the editorial pages - and identifies politically with three-time Democratic presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan, saw his function as offering "an informed student opinion" rather than speaking for all students.
"It's not really a representative position, in that sense," he said recently over breakfast with Grapes in a Westminster coffeehouse. "We don't have a constituency. You're speaking through your own experiences and you're elected because students of the county think your voice is a good one for the board to hear."
Grapes is an outdoorsman who sails, hikes, plays recreational baseball, sings in school musicals and plays the mellophone, the French horn-like instrument played in marching bands.
He said he knows his place on the education panel.