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Calif. Student Helps NEACarry Banner in Chicago

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Tamara V. White wasn't even born the last time the Democratic Party met here.

The 21-year-old Californian, one of more than 400 National Education Association members who were delegates or alternates here last week, appeared oblivious to the nostalgia that gripped many older people as the Democratic National Convention returned to the Windy City for the first time since the violence of 1968.

While several members of the Chicago Seven, the group later prosecuted as alleged conspirators behind the 1968 convention riots, gathered early last week for a reconciliatory remembrance, Ms. White was about a mile away thinking about the future.

"We are breaking the stereotypes that young people don't care," said Ms. White, a senior at California State University at Chico, where she is studying to become a teacher.

Ms. White ran against 17 others to become a convention delegate, only to end up in a tie with Amber Wacht, her friend and fellow member of the Student NEA.

"We kept telling each other, 'You go,' 'No, you go,'" said Ms. White, who won a coin flip to become the delegate. Ms. Wacht came to Chicago as an alternate.

Beyond the strong NEA representation, the American Federation of Teachers had 150 of its members among the 4,900 Democratic delegates and alternates.

Raisin Trading

Of course, the visit was not all politics and policy.

At one of Chicago's famous deep-dish pizza restaurants, Ms. White ordered chicken fettuccine. She and Ms. Wacht also made time for a cruise along the Lake Michigan shore and attended the California delegation's bash at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. The group engaged in mock trading of a commodity not normally represented there: raisins.

Also on tap was a tour of the locker room of the United Center's best-known tenants: the Chicago Bulls basketball team.

On the floor, the California delegation was well stocked with luminaries like Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Mayor Willie Brown of San Francisco, and state Sen. Tom Hayden, best known from his radical days at the '68 convention and as a member of the Chicago Seven, whose federal court convictions were overturned on appeal.

Despite the glitz on the floor, Ms. White elected to watch most of the convention from the arena's second tier, where alternates and others sat. A few times, she handed off her delegate's pass to Ms. Wacht to let her wander the packed floor.

Budding Activists

Beyond the convention site, the students found several spots where education was a prime topic. At the Palmer House Hilton, Ms. White and other members of the NEA and the AFT listened as Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley and Vice President Al Gore slammed Mr. Dole's support for publicly financed vouchers that could be used at private schools.

Ms. White said she gave a lot of thought to the NEA's stance against vouchers and had come to agree with it.

"I like to think about every issue as my own person," she said.

Ms. White is an example of how the teachers' union grooms its members for political activity.

A native of Sacramento, she was persuaded two years ago to join the student chapter of the California Teachers Association, in part because the state union provided a lot of information about her chosen profession, she said.

Last summer, Ms. White attended the CTA's political-action institute in Anaheim, where she received training in the activist side of teaching. She put the point of such training bluntly: "[The unions] want to get a lot of teachers here to things like this. It's very important that teachers stay involved. Otherwise, public schools could be wiped out completely."

She said she doesn't understand why Mr. Dole denounced the teachers' unions as barriers to school reform. "There are a lot of Republicans in the NEA and the CTA," she said. "You can't point the finger at teachers for what is wrong with public schools."

Ms. White said she would leave Chicago full of energy and loaded with buttons, invitations, and posters. She will tell stories about shaking hands with the vice president or being moved by the words of the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson.

"This convention is a slice of America," she said. "I feel everyone is being represented here."

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