By Leslie Combs
Like virtually every voter, I thought the most recent election season was especially tiring and trying. There has to be a better way, I said.
And then I found it at Pikeville Elementary School, which I visited earlier this month to discuss the legislative process with more than 100 sixth graders.
As a state representative for nearly eight years, I had been invited to talk about the real-world application of what they had been studying, but left feeling that I was the one who had actually learned more.
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The experience convinced me that every single candidate seeking office should face a group of students as well-informed and curious as these. They may not be old enough to vote, but they certainly know how to cut through the clutter that turns complicated issues into sound bites and the trivial into something more overblown than it deserves.
Our time together — which was part of the Family Resource and Youth Services Center's Legislative Page for a Day contest — began with a fun exercise that had them separate into two groups representing the House and Senate. They then debated the merits of a "bill" that would add 15 minutes to their recess, so they could see how an idea becomes law. (By the way, it passed unanimously, and I felt confident of an override if a "governor" had tried to veto it.)
I spent the remainder of the lesson answering their questions. Their inquisitiveness showed that this year's campaigns made a deep impression on them, as did the negative ads often accompanying high-profile races.
As a result, they wanted to know why candidates seem to focus more on tearing their opponents down and less on what they hope to build up. They also wondered about the views of our political parties and the role these parties play in running government.
They then asked if there really is a war on coal and how we, as elected officials, are responding to conditions often beyond our control. For these students, this issue goes far beyond the textbook and what they see in the news; they've witnessed the impact firsthand — in many cases, within their own families. They're starting to understand that their future is going to be different than our past.
As a parent and as a legislator proud to call the mountains home, I understand their uncertainty and the desire for them and their families to do better, to overcome the economic hardships that may center on the coal industry but affect us all in Eastern Kentucky.
So I told them that we were trying to improve their access to education and to make the region more attractive for economic development. I told them we are facing a steep challenge, but that we had overcome steep challenges before.
They then asked how they could contribute, to make a difference. I cannot begin to explain how heartening that was, and I'm hoping their enthusiasm will not dim as they get older. That kind of civic pride is exactly the tonic our political system needs and deserves. Later, one of the teachers said she would be surprised if one of these students did not pursue a career in elected office.
Our time was up before their questions were, but I considered that a mark of a successful visit. I had given each of them a copy of the U.S. and Kentucky constitutions, and it meant so much that many asked me to sign theirs before I left.
There is a proverb that says we do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children. The same can be said of our government, and it's something I think all of us — voters and officials alike — must keep in mind with the decisions we make. We need to do the right thing because it's the right thing to do, even if it may not be the most popular.
Our children, as I was reminded early this month, are paying attention.