Last fall, 23 Staples High School students began preparing for this coming weekend. It would be the finals of the national “We the People” competition.
Getting there — spending 5 days in Washington, DC — would not be easy. But in December, Suzanne Kammerman’s Advanced Placement Politics and Government class was crowned Connecticut champions. The win broke Trumbull High’s 8-year stranglehold on first place.
With the help of interested Westporters like Andy Laskin and Jamie Dockray, the teenagers prepped for nationals.
It’s a monumental task. Each team is divided into 6 groups. Each must be ready to answer 3 separate and exceptionally difficult questions on history, politics and law. For example:
“If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other, it is the principle of free thought — not free thought for those who agree with us, but freedom for the thought that we hate.” (Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.) To what extent has this view influenced American culture?”
The Staples students worked hard, hours a day after school and on weekends.
Then came COVID-19.
On March 11, Westport schools closed. That same night, the Center for Civic Education — We the People’s sponsors — canceled the national event.
Kammerman deliver the crushing news by email.
But quickly, the CCE devised an alternative: a virtual competition.
Kammerman was unsure how her students would respond. Nearly all jumped at the chance.
Ever since, the 2 dozen teenagers have been working together — though apart physically — on their presentations.
It will be a streamlined version. Thirty-one teams elected to compete, down from the original 52. Rather than one round each on Saturday and Sunday, with the finals Monday, the cyberspace nationals will be one round only.
Staples has a Sunday morning slot. Students will log on to Zoom, and enter a secure “room.” Each of the 6 groups will present, then spend 6 minutes answering judges’ questions. The topics are the Bill of Rights, 19th Amendment and America’s system of elections. Winners will be announced Sunday night.
Since mid-March, the Westporters have been researching and writing. This week they honed their responses, in small and large group online sessions.
Kammerman is impressed with their dedication and perseverance. They all take several difficult classes; distance learning has not meant a lesser workload at all.
Of course, she notes, “their weekends are freer than they used to be.” Still, she is amazed at how hard they work.
“A lot of the excitement had been about spending 5 days in Washington,” she knows. “That was a prize itself. They’re missing out on that. But they’re still very excited.”
Kammerman — who participated in “We the People” herself more than 20 years ago, as a Shelton High student — has worked hard too. In addition to preparing her class, she’s been on conference calls about the contest’s technology and security. On Wednesday she did a full run-through with her class.
Like so many other teachers, she’s been juggling her other classes, her own children’s distance learning, her spouse who works from home, and running a household during a pandemic.
But, she says, “I love it. This is worth it to me. The days fly by. When I sit at night and help kids with their research, it’s really special.
“The kids are so great. They push me forward.”
In another world, they would have all pushed forward to Washington this weekend.
Instead, they’re all home — alone, together — in Westport.
But in true American spirit, “We the People” will prevail.