Backstory: Cherry picking as civics lesson

Some inner-city kids haven't even tasted a cherry, but if George Washington chopped a cherry tree, it's 'official' for them.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Tucked in a classroom of a nondescript public school building in the impoverished southwest section of town, Terry Bunton's gang of 13 is plotting to shake up the nation's capital. OK, maybe not a total makeover, but an image tweak.

The kids want to make the cherry the official fruit of the District of Columbia. Never mind that Washington produces political stars, not fruit, or that Utah picked the cherry a decade ago, and that some fourth-graders in Michigan are lobbying their state for the same fruit designation now.

But there's evidence to support the proposal the D.C. students insist: George Washington allegedly chopped down a cherry tree, and the district is host to the National Cherry Blossom Festival, which celebrates the more than 3,700 nonfruit-bearing Japanese cherry trees that bloom in screaming pink around the tidal basin.

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For months, the cherry has been the focus of these rambunctious fourth- to sixth-graders. They've used all the tools of the political trade: They drafted a resolution, created a website (www.makethecherryofficial.com), testified before the city council, and lobbied their case in the media.

The resolution is expected to come to a vote this spring, Mr. Bunton says. This is an achievement for a special-needs class that doesn't remember doing anything this fun. It's also an eye-opener for disadvantaged students, some of whom believed they lived in a city called Southwest while others couldn't identify the white dome visible from their second-story class window (it's the US Capitol).

The campaign is also an achievement for Bunton, who wants to teach disadvantaged children about political empowerment. Bunton, whose students place him somewhere between 17 and 100 years old, started teaching at Bowen Elementary School two years ago after quitting his medical sales job which, he says, netted him more money but a lot less fulfillment. He's found the meaning he was missing: "A couple of times a day a child hugs you. Where else do you get that?"

Some kids in the class, like Anthony Harris, are quiet. They sit playing with crayons and paper, and occasionally lift their heads to watch their louder peers, like Marcus Parker, who thrusts his hand up and hops halfway onto his chair when he wants to speak. The kids all wear T-shirts with a red blob symbolizing a cherry (Anthony's design) and the slogan "We can and we will."

Their cherry campaign was inspired by a classin Florida that successfully crowned the orange as the state fruit in 2005. The Florida kids lobbied, petitioned, and even recorded a campaign song. Gov. Jeb Bush signed the bill in their classroom.

Bunton's class picked the cherry easily and then wrote to city officials asking how to go about the process. D.C. Council chairwoman Linda Cropp responded with a visit, and, seeing the determination of the class, decided to support the idea.

Marcus and classmate Eric Seaborn testified in support of the cherry. Eric told the legend of Washington and the cherry tree, while Marcus talked about the festival. Metaphorical connection is enough, they argue. States don't need to produce a fruit to make it official. The metaphor loophole didn't help the marionberry, a fruit suggested by some Washington residents for the word play on Marion Barry, the council member and two-time mayor (in)famous for returning to office after a drug-related scandal. Cropp anticipated the marionberry lobby and said early on that no council member could be chosen as the official fruit - a decision that also eliminated Councilman Vincent Orange.

State symbols have been around for a century. Alan Rosenthal, a state legislature expert at Rutgers University, counts more than 75 categories of symbols ranging from the obvious (official bird or tree) to the superfluous (official cookie or yacht).

"It might appear that states have adopted too many symbols," Mr. Rosenthal wrote in State Legislatures magazine. "But the fact is that over the years, the 50 states have enacted only 575 symbols into law." That's an average of one symbol adopted per decade for every state, including the official cooking pot in Utah (the Dutch oven) and fossil in Nebraska (the mammoth).

Symbols are picked to boost a state's identity and its industries. Some end up on license plates.

The number of proposals today is lower than in the early 20th century, says Benjamin Shearer, author of a book on state symbols. He surmises that legislators are more sensitive to criticism of wasting taxpayers' money on frivolous matters.

Indeed, some D.C. residents wish the council focused on bigger issues. And Bunton admits an official fruit isn't going to solve city ills, but it could teach children they can effect change: "They're kids from the projects - they are very poor. Having a disability makes it even harder to understand the first disadvantage. That is almost insurmountable."

Real cherries may not grow in D.C., but Bunton's students say there are plenty in pies, candy, or atop whipped cream on sundaes. And even if some prefer pears, watermelons, or bananas, they agree on their choice for D.C.

A fourth-grade class in Michigan also chose the cherry for their state, which is the nation's largest tart cherry producer in the country and places in the top five in sweet cherry production. Traverse City, Mich., is the "Cherry Capital of the World" and host to The National Cherry Festival, which is about fruit, not flowers.

"There's more to the story than just a 'feel good' bill," says Michigan state Rep. Paula Zelenko, sponsor of the bill. "As a mother of six daughters and [grandmother of] six granddaughters, I am well aware that children learn best by example. Whether the final outcome is law or not, it is a subject matter that the children can relate to and better follow the process." She doesn't see Michigan and D.C. as competitors - there are plenty of cherries to go around.

But not everyone in Bunton's class is convinced. "They're stealing our stuff," suggests student Michael Wanzor, rousing discussion of the pros and cons of shared official fruit.

What about Utah? "That was way back," says Sheldon McFadden, motioning authoritatively behind him. "We are doing it now. [Michigan] can do it another time."

Classmate Ethel Burnette is more diplomatic: "If we both thought of the cherry, that can only be good for the cherry."

Neither Sheldon nor Ethel have ever tasted the fruit they champion.

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