Washington, D.C., Close Up and personal

Liberty Bell juniors pack lots of activity into five days

By:  Marcy Stamper
Source: The Methow-Valley News

The 27 Liberty Bell High School juniors who traveled to the “other” Washington this month were impressed by the grandeur of a city that one student called “its own little utopia” — but they were dismayed by brusque personal interactions and sky-high costs.

While some of that could be attributed to differences between rural and urban areas and the West and East coasts, the students also picked up on a deeper divide. D.C. seemed to be a stratified city where many residents don’t mix with official Washington, they said.

“We know there’s homelessness, but it’s all kind of hidden,” said one student.

The Close Up trip to Washington, which has become an annual opportunity for Liberty Bell juniors, packs a huge amount of activity into five days, with students occupied from 7 a.m. until almost midnight. Students get guided tours of monuments, visit the Capitol, and meet members of Congress.

The students enjoyed meeting peers from around the country and being exposed to viewpoints that defied easy labels.

Close Up tours mix students with peers from different schools, and Luc LaChapelle enjoyed socializing with kids from across the country. Talking to students from other areas introduced them to complex perspectives that defied easy labels. “Here, it’s a really small, tight-knit community. We’re so small here that people have the same experiences,” said one student.

The program aims to prepare young people to be active, informed participants in a democracy. “The overarching goal … is to equip students with the knowledge, skills, and dispositions necessary for effective and responsible participation in the processes of democratic society and the American political system,” according to Close Up materials.

The students were prepared with hard questions about climate change, health care and wildfires for their meetings with the Washington Congressional delegation.

Sen. Maria Cantwell spent a lot of time with them and brought in assistants to discuss particular topics. “She was so respectful, helpful and informative,” said one student.

They appreciated Cantwell’s idea for expanding access to health care in rural areas by adding Planned Parenthood clinics that would offer services including mental health care, they said.

Some disappointments

By contrast, they were disappointed that Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Dan Newhouse were more pressed for time. They were particularly dismayed by Newhouse, who switched a scheduled meeting in his office to a quick encounter on the Capitol steps at the last minute.

“He came late and left early,” and spent most of his time posing for photos — which were quickly posted on his Facebook page — rather than answering their questions, students said. Students felt Newhouse dismissed their concerns and called him “super-defensive” and “really evasive.”

“He treated us like we were uninformed,” said one.

Liberty Bell history teacher David Aspholm, in his second year accompanying students on the Close Up trip, said last year Newhouse had provided three staff members who held an informative, hour-long meeting with the students.

While the students were impressed by the grand buildings, the Victorian architecture and the attention to design of public spaces and buildings, they were underwhelmed by the view of the exterior of the White House. “It was small and depressing,” said one.

Several students were struck by the fact that there are now official times for protests. The students were in Washington during “A Day without Women” and a demonstration supporting the Standing Rock Sioux in their fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline. “It was really neat to see people in teepees in front of the Washington Monument standing up for what they believe in,” said Mackenzie Woodworth.

Seeing the changing of the guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery was particularly inspiring for many of the students. The three guards work 24-hour shifts, taking every other hour off. “The dedication they put into it — they spend their life doing it,” said one.

But overall, people they encountered were rushed, and many seemed “grouchy,” “really abrasive,” or “had a short fuse,” the students said.

“I was crossing the street and drivers honked at people with a baby stroller,” said LaChapelle. “In the Methow Valley, everyone is really polite.”

“Usually there’s eye contact or a smile in our own world,” said Lauren Ochoa. “One woman smiled at me — that was it,” she said.

But Liliana Hart-Beck was willing to give people the benefit of the doubt. “People on the sidewalk all looked like they had a purpose — they weren’t necessarily rude,” she said.

Some free time

While most of the week is packed with scheduled activities, Close Up participants get some free time. Several took the opportunity to visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “One of the things that really impacted me is how most museums are usually visual. But there, you could still smell the burning smell from the pile of shoes” that had belonged to concentration-camp victims, said Woodworth.

“It was a very heavy museum, one of the most interesting and informative, and one of the greatest lasting impressions of the trip,” said LaChapelle.

Other students used their discretionary time to visit the brand-new National Museum of African American History & Culture. “That was the most interesting part for me, how you worked your way up through history, from Africans brought to this country through Obama’s second term,” said Finlay Holston.

Zoë Hancock appreciated how the museum incorporated stories and historical accounts written by African-Americans. They were so different from the brief version of events in their textbooks, she said.

The African-American museum gave students a different view of Washington in other ways, too. “I saw more of the city of D.C. there,” said Woodworth. “There was more diversity — people weren’t in suits. It drew a different crowd.”

“A clerk at the desk there stopped me to have a conversation — no one does that in D.C.,” said Ochoa.

The students were exposed not only to the halls of power but also to architecture and design. “I was very impressed by how purpose-built everything was,” said LaChapelle.

At a memorial to victims of the 9/11 attacks at the Pentagon, there were benches dedicated to family members of those killed in the attack. Even in a group of 200 students, no one sat down, said Ochoa. “It’s hard to get that many teenagers quiet,” she said.

The trip was both energizing and overwhelming. “I think everyone in this class who went really understands the term ‘museum fatigue,’” said Aspholm.

“My brain was on data-overload,” said Woodworth.

Each student has to raise more than $2,000 for the trip, according to Liberty Bell secretary Debbie Bair, who coordinates fundraising. This year, 53 businesses contributed items for the Close Up raffle. The Public School Funding Alliance helps fund scholarships.

Anyone interested in supporting the annual Close Up trip should contact Bair at 996-2215.