ETHAN, a politically astute 11-year-old, wore his power tie to the public hearing. He and his friends Adi and Susan had learned that Summer Institute - a program on critical thinking and problem-solving - might be cut from the school budget. Thinking critically, the students decided to explain why the program should continue. They read their reasons to 14 budget committee members and an audience of about 15 others - their teacher, the school principal, and the school board.
Their parents (I was one of them) watched proudly.
Years ago I'd heard Donald Graves, a nationally known expert on writing process, speak about writing and political action. We'd know that the writing programs in our schools were working, he'd said, when our students began to use their writing skills to challenge school policies, to speak out on issues they cared about, to effect political change.
I watched and listened as three sixth graders attempted to save a program they loved, and I thought: It's working. All the writing these children have been doing since kindergarten, all this emphasis on thinking for themselves, expressing themselves, taking in and responding to the ideas of of others: Here is the payoff. They have learned how to think and they have learned how to communicate their ideas effectively. They are actively engaging in a democratic process that demands clear thinking and communication if it is to work well.
For a few moments I basked in the glow. Then darkness descended in the form of a large, angry budget committee member with a quivering handlebar moustache who announced that it was obvious the children had not written their own speech, that this was a political ploy orchestrated by an adult to play on the emotions of the committee. It was, in essence, he said: ``A cheap shot.''
I leaped to my feet. So did others. The defense of the children was loud and vigorous; it came both from the audience and from other members of the budget committee. Not that the children needed defending; they were, I learned, perfectly capable of defending themselves. Ethan, Adi, and Susan insisted that they had written their speech and they were there to represent themselves and other students - not their parents. Finally, grudgingly, the man backed down. ``I stand corrected,'' he said, without conviction, still clearly angry.
But the damage had already been done. As a parent, I was offended because he'd accused me of using my child for political gain. But the greater insult was to the children. He simply didn't believe they were capable of independent thought. He didn't believe they were capable of turning that independent thought into political action through the power of the written and spoken word. Ultimately, I think, by doubting the children, he was doubting the effectiveness of the educational system itself and, in particular, the Summer Institute.
Maybe he didn't want to believe in the children's capabilities or in the effectiveness of the education they had received - because these beliefs would make the task of cutting the school budget just a little harder.
When the children spoke up for themselves, their critic perceived an unfair play on the emotions of the budget committee. When the critic spoke up, three white, middle-class children got a taste of what people of color, women, the elderly, and others have long been swallowing by the bellyful: prejudice.
The children's arguments were clear, logical, and unemotional. They told the committee what they had learned at Summer Institute and why it was a valuable program. They asked the committee to consider funding it one more time.
By speaking out, the children reminded listeners that cutting the school budget is more than changing numbers on a computer printout. Their presentation dramatized the fact that eliminating Summer Institute would have a direct and possibly deleterious effect on the education of individual students: Ethan, Susan, Adi, and others.
But because they were young, and only because they were young, their critic made it clear - and tried to persuade others - that these speakers were not to be respected or believed. Unintentionally, the children had provoked an emotional response. Prejudice is an emotional response. In this case it surfaced as an erroneous conclusion (these people can't think, write, or speak for themselves) based on irrelevant information (because they are 11 years old).
Most of the budget committee responded differently. They applauded the children. The meeting lasted several hours; there were many speakers, but the only applause was for these three young activists.
After their presentation, the children left town hall. I stayed, seething. A friend - who could see how angry I was - whispered: ``Don't say anything. Let it go. Let the kids handle it.''
But they had been accused of deceit. They had been characterized as clay in their parents' manipulative hands. Their attempt at political action had been called a ``cheap shot.'' I pictured them depressed, crying maybe, or eating ice cream and watching the ``Three Stooges'' in an attempt to put the incident behind them.
When I got home a couple ofhours later, Susan, and Adi were in my study working on the word processor. They were writing a letter to the editor. They called Ethan for his contribution, too. In the letter they thanked the budget committee for allowing them to speak. They also criticized their critic - rather thoroughly. They didn't use the word prejudice, but obviously they had felt its sting. ``On behalf of us and our families,'' they wrote, ``we cannot believe that an adult would put three children on the spot and accuse us of lying with no evidence whatsoever, except for the fact that we are in the sixth grade. (And, by the way, we did write this letter as well as our speech.)''
The children had been caught off guard at the meeting. They had a lot to say in their defense but weren't yet skilled enough - or perhaps confident enough in a roomful of authority figures - to respond on the spot. So, when the dust had settled, they did what thoughtful, literate people do quite naturally when there are important matters to be settled. They wrote, and rewrote. They harnessed the power of the written word and used it.
Still protective, I said: ``What if your letter makes that man even angrier? What if he writes a letter to the editor, too?''
Susan said, smiling, confident: ``Then we'll write another letter.''
I backed off then, struck suddenly by my own unfounded doubts, my own prejudice. My friend had been right: These kids could handle it.
Three sixth graders spent a few minutes speaking out in front of some of the most politically powerful adults in their community. And they learned a small lesson in democracy. Free speech and freedom from discrimination are not just concepts to Ethan, Susan, and Adi - they are rights to be exercised and defended.