by Sue Austreng
Hundreds of Andover High School (AHS) students took a break from the books, gathering in the school’s auditorium Jan. 13 to hear real-life lessons from a real-life congressman.
Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., accepted an invitation from AHS teacher and AHEM government relations chairwoman Valerie Holthus to stop by the high school and share some wisdom, offer some tips and let students have a peek inside the world of national politics.
Students eagerly awaited his arrival, anticipating hearing the congressman’s perspective and imagining questions they might pose, if given the opportunity.
“I’m interested in his take on the Mideast, Occupy Wall Street, the Euro crisis – should we be involved? There’s so much he could talk about… I’m anxious to hear what he has to say,” Emma Olson said before Ellison arrived.
“I’m open to hearing whatever he has to say, but I guess I’d really like to hear him talk about foreign policy,” said Adam O’Gorman.
Like several others in the audience, Olson and O’Gorman are studying advanced placement politics at the high school. Others of the 230 students in attendance for Ellison’s visit study economics, government, English and law at AHS.
Responding to Principal Rhonda Dean’s introduction and her invitation to Ellison to share “a day in the life of a congressman,” he opened by telling students, “To be a congressman you have to be flexible, ready for anything – kind of like being a high school student.”
Then the congressman elaborated on a quote by the late British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, “You make a living by what you get. You make a life by what you give.”
Ellison told the students that the public service they give and the civic engagement they practice will be the true mark of who they are in life.
“I’m the first Muslim elected to the U.S. Congress, the first black congressman from Minnesota. The firsts don’t matter, what matters is what I do,” Ellison said.
Elaborating on that point, Ellison prompted students to specific points of the Pledge of Allegiance, and then told them, “I take very seriously the ‘liberty and justice for all.’ I take that seriously and want you to take that seriously with me to make sure there is no exception to ‘all.’”
The congressman then invited students to share in the task of making sure that “the high and noble aspirations – of the Pledge of Allegiance, of the Constitution – match up to what our country offers.”
“In order to fix a problem, you have to be engaged in fixing the problem,” Ellison said. “That is my challenge to you: be involved.”
Ellison then opened the floor to questions from the students.
They asked the congressman’s opinion on the success of the Muslim Brotherhood in the parliamentary elections in Egypt.
They asked for his solution to the difficulty students have getting financial aid for college and then the difficulty of finding employment following their college years.
They asked for the congressman’s view on deficit spending and whether he thought the price of gas was too high.
Finally, students asked Ellison’s opinion on No Child Left Behind, the federal legislation concerning the education of children in public schools.
“I think we should mend it, not end it,” Ellison said, then suggested that tests be given early in the school year to evaluate students’ knowledge and abilities.
“Those tests should be used for diagnostics, not for punishment,” Ellison said.
He also told students of his belief that money should be put into lowering the number of high school student drop outs, increasing literacy and funding early childhood education.
And then, with the hour designated for his presentation coming to a close, Ellison repeated his invitation to the students to get involved, to be engaged in public service, to be part of the solution to problems they see in the world.
“It was great to be here. Great to meet all of you –and don’t you forget, ‘Liberty and justice for all,’” he said.
The congressman seemed to satisfy the expectations of the student body.
Students rallied their responses to Ellison’s visit as they sped down the hallway toward their next hour classes after the Jan. 13 presentation.
“I thought he was good. He was interesting.”
“Yeah, he really listened to our questions and he gave some real answers.”
Sue Austreng is at firstname.lastname@example.org