A lesson in democracy

17 years ago

Recently, I welcomed to Washington four outstanding high-school students from Maine — our state’s delegates to Boys and Girls Nation. Coral Sandler of South Portland, Katherine Rhames of Biddeford, Greg Jensen of Falmouth, and Justin Rouse of Eliot joined delegates from throughout the country for an invaluable week-long experience in citizenship and government. It was a great pleasure to meet them.
    These young leaders got to Washington through a lot of hard work. Academic achievement, community service, and excelling at Dirigo Boys and Girls State here in Maine all went into making this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity possible.
They also got to Washington with a lot of help. For more than 60 years, the American Legion and the American Legion Auxiliary have sponsored these programs, fulfilling their commitment to instill in our young people an understanding of our system of government and a deeper appreciation for our American ideals. Throughout their lives, these students have had parents, teachers, and community members supporting them and encouraging them to follow their dreams.
As delegates, the students adopt the role in senators in the structure of a mock Senate, which operates under the rules and practices of the U.S. Senate. They form parties, elect leaders, organize into committees, and write and debate legislation. In fact, Coral and Katherine co-authored a piece of legislation and got it passed. That’s a great accomplishment!
But, beyond learning the legislative process, these students learn the lessons of leadership, of standing tall for one’s beliefs while respecting the beliefs of others, of engaging in respectful and constructive debate, and of working together for the common good. Whether these students pursue careers in government, business, education, or any other field, these principles will serve them, and our society, well.
Meeting our four “senators” took me back to the experiences I had a student at Caribou High School as a delegate both to Dirigo Girls State and to the U.S. Senate Youth Program. I will never forget the excitement of seeing new places and making new friends. The lessons of what can be accomplished with cooperation and civility have stayed with me always.
It is important to recall how the Boys and Girls State movement began. In the 1930s, the forces of tyranny and oppression seemed to be taking over the world – many doubted whether freedom could survive. The American Legion and the American Legion Auxiliary were especially concerned that these tyrannical
regimes were indoctrinating their young people in their hateful ideology, and so they countered with a program to better educate young Americans in democracy. In the 1940s, the State program was expanded to the national level.
It is as true today as it was back then that the continued vitality of our democracy depends on our continuing to foster among our young people knowledge of and respect for the institutions of our government and of the principles of our nation. I commend the American Legion and Auxiliary for making these great programs possible and all the adults at home and in the hometowns who encourage and support the students who participate. Most of all, I commend the students themselves – there is no doubt that the delegates of today will be the leaders of tomorrow.