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Learning To Handle Lobsters With Care

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When 4th graders in Saco and Kennebunk began a class project to design a new license plate for Maine, they had little idea that their choice--featuring a red lobster--would spark regional and economic rivalries and incur the wrath of animal lovers.

But last week, the state legislature gave final approval to the pupils' design. Come July, the new plates will be seen on cars from Madawaska to Kittery.

The project began four years ago as the brainchild of Robert Towne, then a 4th-grade teacher at Park Street School in Kennebunk. Mr. Towne, who had previously led a successful student campaign to have the honeybee declared the state insect, invited his class and that of Joe Eragitano, at Burns School in Saco, to come up with a design for a new plate.

The students eventually agreed that it should depict a lobster, and they proceeded to collect 11,000 signatures from residents of 140 towns on a petition supporting their idea.

Last year, armed with facts and figures on the importance of lobsters to Maine, 75 students marched to the Capitol in Augusta. Although earlier attempts to place other state products on license plates had failed, the lawmakers overwhelmingly approved the students' design.

"We were more organized, and we did our homework,'' explained Mr. Eragitano.

But the students learned quickly that decisionmaking in a democracy can be a raucous business. After the initial vote, residents from inland areas raised objections, as did potato and blueberry growers, and lovers of lighthouses and forests. And animal-rights activists objected to the fact that the lobster on the plate would be red, indicating it had been cooked.

In the end, the issue came down to money, said Linwood Ross, the state's head of motor-vehicle registration. The state had already invested $1 million to buy red reflective coating for the lobster license plates, he said, and had printed 400,000 copies. A compromise bill, which would have allowed residents to choose a red, white, and blue plate instead, would have cost another $800,000, and was defeated last week.

The four-year experiment in representative democracy has had an effect on at least one student, Tricia Grace, now in the 7th grade at Saco Middle School. "It was a really good learning experience,'' she said. "I learned a lot about government, and I want to be a representative.''--R.R.

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