Terre Haute, Indiana
In the weeks before this year’s road trip, I received the following from a high school senior in Kokomo, Indiana:
IF YOU DO NOT COME TO INDIANA AND MEET ME, A 9-11 VICTIM WILL DIE. PLEASE FORWARD. JUST KIDDING.
Hello Mr. Klein!
I’ll just come out and say it: meeting me should be the number one priority of your roadtrip this summer. I would love to spend this email describing how much I love you and your writing. However, I must avoid that for two reasons: 1) You might be less likely to meet me, since I may come across as creepy and/or pathetic. 2) You might not finish reading this email, which is vital for the survival of my ego.I realize you may have hundreds or thousands of requests. However, I would like to think that it would be pragmatic for you to make my request a priority. Here’s why:
1) I am under 18 (although I just yesterday voted in Indiana’s primary, since I will turn 18 two days before the GE!!!); this will likely contrast your older readership and provide fresh material and a new perspective. Not to mention I will be much more fun to talk to.
2) I am a feminazi-slut-atheist-post-modern-democrat living in INDIANA (much to my despair), surrounded by conservatives (my parents, many of my friends) and INSANE TEA-BAGGERS (the rest of Indiana). Meeting you would enlighten me, and therefore the state.
3) I am a student in the Indiana public school system…but with a brain…
It went on, hilariously. It turned out that Morgan was going to be competing in the national high school speech and debate championship and had been selected for Girls State in Indiana, the American Legion Auxiliary’s famed leadership program. There was no way I wasn’t going to meet this kid.
And so it came to pass that the very last event of my road trip turned out to be a visit with Morgan at Girls State–and a round table with some of the other girls who were participating at the leadership camp. (You will remember that Bill Clinton participated in Boys State and Nation, which is how he came to be photographed with John F. Kennedy.)
I should point out, at the beginning, that Morgan was obviously exaggerating for effect in describing herself, her parents and her state in the famous email. She is neither slut nor feminazi. She is an extremely poised and intelligent young woman, who wants to go to law school but dreams of becoming a writer. (Based on the email, I’d say she has the chops.) Her dad is a doctor and her mom is a lawyer. She grew up without television. “We’d go to the library and take out 50 books at a time,” she told me. Seems to me, her parents did a fine job raising a wildly independent, strong-willed girl. I’d love to meet them some day, to hear their side of the story. In any case, Morgan’s dad gave permission for her to talk to Katy Steinmetz and me. And we received permission from the parents of several of the other girls as well. Where we didn’t receive permission, I’ve changed the girls’ names to protect their privacy.
The six girls we spoke with were, clearly, extraordinary. They were wall-to-wall Advanced Placement types and three were taking college-level courses online. Morgan began by saying that her biggest beef was the attempt by “religious people to control the reproductive rights of women.” She was especially infuriated by the infamous hearing where a House committee heard testimony on birth control from “five old Republican white men.”
Abigail Stone, sitting next to Morgan, said she agreed about the hearing but didn’t entirely agree with Morgan’s position. And Kelly Silnes added that she was in complete disagreement: “I’m pro-life. I go on the march for life every year.” Morgan and Kelly said they’d debated abortion and “agreed to disagree.” The striking thing to me, as the discussion progressed, was the nuanced intelligence of their respective positions. Kelly, for example, favored Planned Parenthood splitting off funding for abortions from the other services it provides. “It does provide useful information about sexually transmitted diseases,” she said.
The conversation turned to education. “The fundamental assumption is that we’re all ‘above average’ and that everybody should go to college, but that’s unfair to the kids who are not cut out for college,” Morgan said. “A lot of kids go to college and drop out immediately. My high school class started with 600 and is going to end with 400–there should be other paths, like vocational education, for the ones not suited for college,” she said and later admitted that she’d read my piece about Career and Technical Education in Arizona a few months ago. What a brilliant, discerning girl!
Morgan was one of the three who were taking online courses. She was taking American History from the University of Miami. “It’s more work than all my other AP courses combined,” she said. “I wish I could take all my classes online.” The other girls disagreed about that. Kelly Silnes had a great AP History teacher, “but when I have a bad teacher, it makes me feel dumber.” Abigail Stone loved the social life of her school. Martha Scott* was taking college-level courses in government and economics. She said she had a weekly phone call with her online professors and participated in a chat room with her fellow online students. (This seemed to me a very promising educational development, a way to challenge top high school students and expand the curricula available in smaller high schools.)
I asked the girls about their less-extraordinary schoolmates. “I look at some of them,” Morgan said, “And I think that five years from now, they’ll be the sort of adults you see around town–their glory days were in high school. They won an athletic championship or were a cheerleader, or whatever. I can’t understand that. I’m desperate to get out, see the world.”
“Even with a lot of the top kids, it’s ‘how little can I do to get by?’” said Abigail Stone. “How much cheating can I get away with? It’s going to be a complete shock when they get to college.”
“All the entertainment we’re exposed to is desensitizing,” said Rachel Ferguson*. “A lot of students get a distorted sense of what ‘living the dream’ is all about. It’s not all about you. It’s about others. I wish,” she said, looking at me pointedly, “the media were less about me, more about what we owe each other.”
Finally, I told the girls that the one theme that I’d heard most frequently on the road trip had been parents worried that life wasn’t going to be as good for their kids as it had been for them. I asked if they were worried about that. “What I’m worried about is that everyone is tuning out politics,” Rachel said. “Because it’s just about arguing. I wish our office holders would set an example for the rest of us. If they do their work, we’ll be able to take care of this country when it’s our turn.”
Kelly Silnes agreed: “When I was in 8th grade, I wanted to become a politician,” she said. “But politics is now 100% attacking the other side. I don’t want any part of that. I want to be a doctor.”
I’ll give the last word to Morgan: “I’m really concerned about the polarization going on in this country. Yes, we have problems–but it’s not something to cry about. We don’t have to be so polarized; we can reach agreement on a lot of the economic and budget issues. The politicians should man up! Compromise! Solve the issues and then maybe they won’t have to worry so much about the country they’re leaving for us.”
And that’s probably where I should let this road trip end. Morgan had summed up the mood of just about everyone I’d spoken with. When I hit the road in 2010, people seemed scared–they thought the country was headed off a cliff. Last year, people were looking for the politicians to compromise on the big issues–a Time poll had 89% of the public preferring politicians to who compromised to get things done over politicians who stuck by their principles.
My overwhelming sense this year is that people are disgusted that the politicians haven’t gotten anything accomplished. Their disdain is comprehensive. It crosses party lines, although there is a growing sense that the Republicans in Congress deserve more blame than the President does–but even those who’ll vote for Obama are disappointed that he hasn’t been more of a leader.
And yet, I end this trip more optimistic than when I started out. It’s great to hear Americans talk. And when you meet young people like Morgan Mohr and the other young women at Girls State in Indiana, it’s hard to be pessimistic about our future. In fact, it’s hard not to be flat out excited.
*not her real name.