Students in BFA’s AP US Government and Politics class recently interacted with powerful figures in government on the state and national level. It is easy to be cynical about politics today with decisions being made by people far away and with little connection to the people. However, a pair of experiences for students in AP Government and Politics made students realize the difficulty and personal nature of decision making in politics.
On February 19, students traveled with peers from Milton High School to Montpelier to listen to Oral Arguments in the Vermont Supreme Court. Arguments included cases concerning police treatment of witnesses, the power of Vermont’s Open Meeting Laws, and whether convicted felons can receive parole and rehabilitation treatment in Vermont. Students were surprised at how interactive the justices were the lawyers. There were times when the justices would rapidly ask questions of the lawyers in order to get to the constitutional issues at hand. After hearing the arguments, all five Vermont Supreme Court Justices came out of their chambers and answered questions from students. Questions ranged from their career path to the Supreme Court, why they asked certain questions during arguments, the importance of being above political parties and ideology and interpreting law, and understanding the judicial process of the lower courts. The clear takeaways from the day with the justices was the deep respect for law the justices had, how their decision-making process will effect Vermonters for years to come, and according to one student, how very hard they work for the betterment of the state.
Three weeks later, on March 13, students were able to talk to Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy in an online chat. In the 45 minute Q and A with Vermont’s longest serving Senator, Leahy answered a variety of student questions ranging from his time as a district attorney in Chittenden County, his first Senate Campaign, how to make college more affordable, his views on digital privacy, and his appearance in multiple Batman films. An important moment for many students was Leahy’s discussion of passage of the 1992 Leahy Landmine Elimination Act. Leahy discussed his visit to Vietnam to talk to war veterans and civilians affected by landmines. He recalled how he assisted a legless Vietnamese man into a wheelchair that was purchased with funds that came from his legislation. It was clear, even 27 years after his trip, that he was still deeply impacted from his experience and passage of his legislation.
At the end of the discussion, students noted how personable Senator Leahy was. He thoughtfully and articulately answered all the students questions; it was not just a stump speech or a prepared list of talking points. “It made me proud to have him represent us in DC,” said one student. “Conversations like this make me want to be involved in the political process,” said another.
Joe Emery is a Social Studies Teacher at BFA Fairfax High School.