It's midday on Friday, and Exeter High School's gym is packed to the rafters. Several hundred students clamber over bleachers, yelling to each other as teachers try to keep the room under control. The school band pumps up the crowd with "Louie Louie" and the theme song to "Rocky."
You'd think the Exeter Blue Hawks were about to face a tough rival on the basketball court. But these New Hampshire teenagers are buzzing about the imminent arrival of Arizona Sen. John McCain.
The Republican presidential candidate will give his stump speech and answer students' questions about why he wants to be president. Most of the kids in the audience, of course, are not yet old enough to vote. But the men vying for their parties' nominations are eager for face time - and heartwarming photo ops - in the state that hosts the first presidential primary. And the students seem just as enthusiastic about getting up close and personal with a person who might soon inhabit 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
The high-energy event stands in sharp contrast to a time when students are famously apathetic about politics. Some 25 years after winning the right to vote at 18, less than a third of 18- to 24-year-olds bothered to participate in the last presidential election, according to the Federal Election Commission. Meetings like this one aim to teach students that they have a stake in the process.
"They need to learn that democracy is a part of their life, as much as anything else," says Barbara James, director of student activities at nearby private Phillips Exeter Academy. "[Being involved] is as important as brushing their teeth."
The forum is the brainchild of Mrs. James and Chris St. Jean, a history and humanities teacher at Exeter High. The two educators have been working together to bring presidential candidates to their schools for the past 15 years.
The idea is to get kids invested in the system. "It's a small percentage of kids who are politically active," James says. "Apathy is a real serious problem."
The teachers attribute this to the absence of civics education in most schools.
New Hampshire can play a big role in fostering political activity at a young age. Each year, Ms. St. Jean gives her students a "campaign assignment" that requires them to research all the candidates and then spend 20 hours volunteering for one of them. After the primary, students turn in a log of activities as well as a paper analyzing their candidates' stands, projecting the likelihood of success or failure, and explaining what they have learned about the political system.
Students must also get the candidates to come speak. They write letters and then follow up with phone calls. On occasion, they've had to pester candidates. One year when they trailed then-candidate Jesse Jackson, repeatedly asking him to come to Exeter. "We finally nailed him at a women's meeting in Portsmouth," James laughs.
This year, students have seen just about all the candidates. Gary Bauer came to Phillips Exeter last week. "I was surprised at how well they accepted Bauer," says James. While they challenged him on social issues, like abortion and religion, "he was so honest and direct," she says. "I think the kids appreciated that."
Currently, students' top picks are Senator McCain and Bill Bradley - in part, says St. Jean, because their grass-roots-style campaigns, unlike some others, have welcomed high school volunteers.
Moreover, McCain is addressing cynicism. "I think that young people have to respect the institutions of government again," he says during his visit. "But also, these young people want to look up to the institution and the holders of high office...."
Students grill him on everything from gay rights to foreign policy. Katelyn McGrail, a senior from Exeter High, asks about his shift from co-sponsoring the Airline Passengers Bill of Rights to opposing it after receiving contributions from the airline industry. "Is this a violation of your pledge to support campaign-finance reform?" she asks. (McCain says he was satisfied the airlines were taking remedial steps, making legislation unnecessary. Katelyn later says he didn't really answer her question.)
Questions include who will win the Super Bowl and whether marijuana should be legalized. McCain says the Rams, and offers to send antidrug literature.
Sharon Vuppula, a sophomore from Nashua Christian Academy, says she watches all the debates and favors Alan Keyes. But she knows he probably won't win, and she's curious about McCain. "Seeing something that could be a part of history is really exciting," she says.
All agree that meeting a candidate makes a big difference. "It gives you a clearer view of their personality," says Grace Lin, a sophomore at Phillips Exeter.
Of course, not all students are politically active. Christopher Dumont, a sophomore from Exeter High, says he's just glad to be missing class. But then he warms to McCain and says he'd vote for him.
Which is what the two veteran teachers had in mind. "There were all kinds of seeds planted there today," James says. "Things they'll never forget."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society