Civic-minded kids out to stump adults

On Liberty Day, pupils celebrate history -- and gleefully show up their elders

March 19, 2006|By KAREN NITKIN | KAREN NITKIN,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Seven fifth-graders from Annapolis Area Christian School stood outside the State House, politely stopping people and quizzing them about the U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence.

It was part of a national annual event called Liberty Day, which aims to stage such events in every state capital and Washington.

The children even got a chance to meet Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

As they waited for him to come out of the governor's mansion, they shuffled through their index cards of questions, looking for particularly challenging ones for him. They had already stumped Greg Massoni, the governor's press secretary, with a question about the 15th Amendment. "I should know this," Massoni said. (The 15th Amendment says the right to vote shall not be denied or abridged because of one's "race, color or previous condition of servitude.")

But Ehrlich deftly turned the tables, and began asking questions to the kids, not giving them a chance to ask questions of him. All of his questions had a Maryland twist.

Who are the four Marylanders who signed the Declaration of Independence? he asked. (Charles Carroll, Samuel Chase, Thomas Stone and William Paca)

In what year was the U.S. Constitution ratified in Maryland? (1788)

Ehrlich spent about 15 minutes with the pupils Thursday, posing for photos and telling them that he thought the concept of Liberty Day was terrific. "This is a great lesson in history and civics," he said. "I love what you're doing today, but most of all I love that you're learning to love history."

He also signed copies of the booklet-sized copies of the Constitution that the kids had been giving out all morning. "How many of you have read this?" he asked, holding one aloft.

"Halfway," said pupil Elizabeth Foley.

The governor laughed. "Halfway," he said. "That's honest. I love honesty."

According to the organization's Web site, Liberty Day is a nonprofit, grass-roots movement that started in Colorado. It's held March 16 - the birthday of James Madison, who is known as the Father of the Constitution. (Teachers didn't want it on Sept. 17, the day the Constitution was signed, because it was too close to the start of the school year.)

Typically, Lions Clubs and other organizations work with schools to bring students to state capitals on Liberty Day. In Maryland, the Severn River Lions Club has sponsored the event for the past two years.

The Lions bought kits that contained the booklet-sized copies of the Constitution, red Liberty Day T-shirts for the kids to wear, round stickers that say "I took the quiz" and, most importantly, index cards with questions about the Constitution and Declaration of Independence.

"I guess I got a sense last year that they sort of delighted in showing up the adults," said Oliver Wittig of the Severn River Lions Club.

Teachers Rene Wheeler and Ann Hagerott said the fifth-graders who were interested in Liberty Day met after school once a week for about three weeks to learn about the documents and to practice approaching adults in a polite way.

Margo Arthur said she wants to be an actress and that speaking to strangers is good practice. There's no doubt that part of the fun for the kids is seeing grown-ups get things wrong.

"Sometimes they struggle," said Tyler Coleman, 11. "It makes me feel like I'm smart."

One man who listened to a question about the Fifth Amendment walked away with a laugh when he didn't know the answer. "You all are putting me on the spot here," he said. (The Fifth Amendment guarantees a grand jury in a capital crime, that a person can't be tried twice for the same crime and that one doesn't have to be a witness against oneself.)

But Brad Miller, chief of staff for state Sen. E.J. Pipkin, did a great job with his question about the 26th Amendment, which gave 18-year-olds the right to vote. "I had to think on that one for a minute," he said.

But he got it right.

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