Student Well-Being

Marching Orders

By Roger Friedman — September 01, 2003 10 min read
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A 4th grader’s footloose idea—to make walking Maryland’s official exercise—nearly becomes law.

All around them in the state Capitol in Annapolis, the chatter of lawmakers and spectators was upbeat, in some cases joyous. For most, it was a day of celebration as Maryland Governor Robert Ehrlich signed more than 100 bills into law on the last day of the 2003 legislative session. Bills covering everything from environmental restoration requirements to a woman’s right to breast-feed her child in public received the governor’s signature.

But a group of local 4th graders got a civics lesson not covered by any Schoolhouse Rock cartoon on that overcast morning in late May. The bill the students had worked for two years to advance, supporting walking as the state exercise, had been vetoed only a day before the signing, with Ehrlich declaring the bill “silly” and decrying such frivolous wastes of the legislature’s time.

Will Smith, the earnest 4th grader at East Silver Spring Elementary School who led the effort, wouldn’t stoop to the governor’s level. The 9-year-old, who many of his teachers believe—perhaps even assume—will someday be president, already displays a level of tact and diplomacy that could serve as a lesson for any elected official. He wouldn’t call the governor silly, or stupid, or anything else a kid his age might be tempted to say given the circumstances. He wouldn’t even mention that just that morning, the governor had signed into law a bill designating the thoroughbred horse as the state horse, or that as a delegate Ehrlich had voted for square dancing as the state folk dance and a snail shell as the state fossil. Will steadfastly stuck to his talking points—that walking as a symbol for Maryland would benefit individuals and the state as a whole by reducing obesity and combating heart disease.

“I don’t think [our proposed bill is] silly, and I don’t think all these other people think it’s silly,” said Will, dressed smartly in khakis, New Balance running shoes, and a white polo shirt with a Maryland pin affixed to the collar. “But he’s the governor, and he gets to make that choice. I’m disappointed, but I’m not mad. That’s how it works.”

So a planned victory march from the docks of Annapolis to the statehouse on a dreary spring morning became a makeshift protest, with Will and classmate Tallin Walker at the front of the procession, a homemade “Maryland Walks” banner held between them. State Delegate William Bronrott, a Democrat from Montgomery County, stood behind them, his hands on their shoulders in a camera-ready pose. Bronrott’s most recent campaign focused on walkable communities and pedestrian safety as major themes, and he even chaired a committee on making the region pedestrian-friendly, so he believes in the issue. And every politician also knows the value of a good photo op.

As the march got under way, Bill Smith, Will’s father, and Melissa Gersh, his teacher when he began the effort in 3rd grade, hung off to the sides, obligingly in the frames of most cameras but far enough behind not to take the focus away from the kids. Both were there to help when Will and Tallin took off at too quick a pace, stringing out the crowd of 25 behind them and forcing television cameramen and newspaper photographers to sprint for shots. And both dad and teacher stepped in to help when it quickly became apparent that 4th graders from the Washington, D.C., suburbs might not know the best route from the docks of Annapolis to the Capitol.

Will, 9, has spent two years lobbying for his cause. His teachers assume he’ll one day be president.
—Photograph by David Kidd

Watching proudly from a distance, Smith—a stay-at-home dad and an advocate for Smart Step Forward, a statewide walking campaign—was equally philosophical in defeat. He and many of the adults in attendance, including a gaggle of print, TV, and radio reporters, saw the veto as political retribution against Bronrott for his role in an embarrassing rejection of the governor’s efforts to legalize slot machines in the state.

“The whole thing is just a matter of politics, nothing to do with the merits of the bill,” said Smith, who with his nicely kempt appearance and pleasant face would be a mirror image of his son’s if 9-year-olds could grow beards. “And that’s as valuable a lesson as any. Maybe you don’t want your son to learn it so early, but he’s got a 30-year head start on me.”

Gersh, who continued to work with Will on the project even after he moved on to 4th grade, admired the boy’s poise as the procession continued, though his attitude hardly came as a surprise. “Some of his classmates were having an argument toward the end of last school year, just acting like kids do,” she said. “Will stepped in and said, ‘Let’s not bicker because we only have a few days left together.’ How many people, much less kids, are that calm and sensible?”

Gersh challenges her 8-year-old students to explore new ways of learning; she reads the works of Robert Frost and Maya Angelou with them, for example, and has them write free verse. But she wasn’t the mastermind behind a project that would bring the students to the steps of the state Capitol and the front page of the Washington Post.

Will and his dad came up with the idea two years ago while looking at the Maryland state symbols online, including the Baltimore oriole (state bird), the blue crab (crustacean), and milk (drink). Since the family doesn’t own a car and neither parent drives, it’s safe to call the Smiths pro-walking. Bill stopped driving in 1989 when macular degeneration made him legally blind, and Will’s mom, Kathleen, never learned to drive, instead relying on public transportation in her hometown of Philadelphia. To Will, it only made sense that walking should be the state exercise.

“It’s healthy, it’s good for the environment, and it’s hard to say ‘hi’ when you’re going 60 miles per hour,” he explains.

Father and son presented the idea to Gersh, who worked with other teachers and the principal to get the entire 3rd grade involved. Students who didn’t know a delegate from a delicatessen soon were brainstorming reasons to propel the idea through the legislature. “Because if people did not have exercise, they will be humongous and very truly fat,” wrote one. “Walking is good because it doesn’t pollute the population,” another added. “You get to know nature and your surroundings better when you walk. You can also spend more time with your family,” a third wrote.

The class then honed its ideas and wrote persuasive letters to lawmakers, which happened to fit in nicely with a writing-to-inform lesson and drew the attention and enthusiastic support of Bronrott, a thin, proper PR man with a receding hairline. “I think that having the up-and-coming generation step forward in Annapolis can bring attention to issues that might otherwise miss out,” he says.

Bronrott first introduced the subject during the 2002 legislative session, and with Gersh’s help, Will and a handful of his classmates made trips to Annapolis—first to lobby, later to testify before the now-defunct House commerce and government matters committee. It was an incredible civics lesson for students who wouldn’t be studying state government for another year.

On the day of the hearing, the committee chairman, clearly unimpressed with the bill, kept the kids and a host of advocates waiting for nearly two hours. Though sick with the flu, Will persevered and delivered an inspiring statement he had prepared with his father, as did several of his classmates. The result was the kind of legislative emotion and drama rarely seen outside The West Wing, and the local CBS affiliate, WUSA-TV, received an Emmy nomination for its coverage of the day.

Despite their compelling arguments, their photogenic, freckled noses, and the support of former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop and his Shape Up America organization, the bill fell one vote short in committee.

Will, however, is not the type of kid who gets easily distracted or deterred. He, his dad, and Bronrott again took up the gauntlet the following fall, this time moving the kids more to the background of the issue and letting advocacy groups such as the American Heart Association, the Maryland Public Health Association, the American Cancer Society, and Chesapeake Bay Country Wanderers take the lead.

“It’s nice to get your kid’s picture in the paper, but we wanted to make sure the bill got passed and didn’t come across as a school civics project,” says Smith. “So this year, they did their hard work behind the scenes.” For instance, some of the 4th graders, now scattered among different classes and schools, wrote to their counterparts across the state, urging them to write to their representatives in support of the bill. A small group put in another appearance in Annapolis to receive the 2003 Legislative Heroes Award from the Maryland office of the AHA on behalf of their former classmates.

This past session, the committee voted in favor of House Bill 98, and the House and Senate sent it to the governor, despite widespread concerns in the legislature of state-symbol saturation. But not long after the celebrations began, the governor used his veto power, stopping Will and his supporters in their tracks.

“He was very upset last year when it was defeated in committee,” Smith says. “This year when he heard the news, his comment was, ‘Oh, crud.’ I guess he’s already getting a pretty good handle of how things work.”

With Will leading the way to the Capitol during the post-veto march, the group of walkers were ushered by a disappointed Bronrott into the office of House Speaker Michael Busch, an amiable former high school coach and college football player who wanted to give Will and his entourage a pep talk.

As they waited for Busch to arrive, Gersh and Tallin huddled in a corner of the oak-paneled, high-ceilinged office, the teacher helping her former student as she struggled to write a persuasive letter on a torn-out sheet of notebook paper, urging the speaker to continue their work to get the bill past the governor.

Melissa Gersh, Will’s 3rd grade teacher, continues to work with her former student and his classmates.
—Photograph by David Kidd

“Obviously, it’s not the outcome we were hoping for, and it’s disappointing and upsetting,” said Gersh, visibly straining to be a good role model for her former students. “Except for the outcome, this has been a great experience for the kids. They got to see the entire process, and they got to see that even a group of kids could make a big difference. We didn’t get our way, but we were able to bring up an important issue.”

When he got a moment free from the glare of the spotlights and the questions from the press, Will bounced absent- mindedly off his parents, pinballing from one to the other, finally hooking his thumb into his dad’s belt and leaning on him for support. After what seemed like an eternity to the kids, who would rather be outside playing, the speaker blew into his office. “Sorry I’m late,” he joked, “but I walked to get here.”

“It’ll be back next year. Don’t lose faith,” the gray-haired Busch told Will and the rest of the disappointed gathering, only a whistle and a couple of helmets shy of one of the former coach’s countless halftime huddles. “The legislative process is one that sometimes takes time.”

Will wasn’t done. With news cameras rolling, he politely asked the speaker if he would please try to override the governor’s veto. Busch said he’d look into it. Later, Will and his father would say that they’d keep fighting for the cause, consoled by the fact that each year they’ve gotten closer to seeing the bill become law; Gersh has also promised to help as long as Will needs her support.

That afternoon, as Will and his family walked down the marble steps of the Capitol to go to lunch, Will was asked if he wanted to use everything he learned in his incredible and winding civics lesson to become a politician when he grew up.

“No!” he almost shouted, recoiling at the suggestion.

Said Bronrott, standing two steps below: “He already is.”


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