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Presidential election energizes high schools

At Providence High, about 30 students will join their government teacher on a trip to the inauguration in January.

At West Charlotte, students discuss what the election or defeat of America's first serious black presidential contender would say about race.

At Myers Park High, where almost 300 students turned out for an after-school debate between pro-McCain and pro-Obama students, lively political arguments in the cafeteria and classrooms are common.

“A ton of people are volunteering” for both campaigns, said Myers Park sophomore Michael Griggs, who impersonated the candidates and Joe the Plumber for comic relief after the debate. He, like other students, says there will be gloating and anger when the results are in.

“The Myers Park campus is split right down the middle,” said Griggs, who backs Obama. “It's going to be heated – not exactly riots, but there are going to be yelling matches.”

Longtime high school teachers say this presidential campaign is energizing teens like none they've seen. It features vivid personalities and historic opportunities for African Americans and women. Obama's campaign is taking its message to young people on their own electronic turf, and students are organizing political events on Facebook and clicking on YouTube to keep up with news, ads and controversy.

Some of the oldest high schoolers will cast their first votes, but younger ones aren't letting age keep them on the sidelines.

Isabel Williams, a 15-year-old Myers Park High sophomore, says many of her friends are making “get out the vote” calls for Obama or McCain so they don't miss out on history: “That's the easiest way for me to make an effect on society,” says Williams, an Obama backer.

Teachers, of course, have their own opinions, but Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools advised them before school opened to keep personal views out of the classrooms. The district warned them not to wear campaign buttons or stickers to school and not to use school e-mail or phones for political activity.

Packed audiences

For Katherine Lee Schuitema, a senior at Myers Park, political arguments often start before the morning bell. She's casting her first vote for McCain. Her twin brother, Jeffrey, is going for Obama.

They've learned not to talk politics before driving to school together: “One of us gets mad and one of us ends up walking.”

On Wednesday, she said, her lunch table had four Obama backers and five for McCain – all vocal. After school, she headed for the auditorium, where she was part of the McCain debate team.

Organizers – the school's Young Democrats, Young Republicans and debate team – used Facebook to solicit questions and RSVPs for the debate. They were expecting a crowd of about 75. Almost 300 showed up.

Moderator Andrew West, who teaches debate, tried vainly to maintain audience silence. Applause and cheers broke out for both sides as the student teams rattled off position statements on health care, taxes and paying for college. A McCain/Palin yard sign occasionally popped up in the audience.

Diana Freeman, 15, was among those whooping it up for McCain. She says she got her Republican views from her mother and her sense of urgency from her civics and economics class: “It kind of hit me that this is an important election, since we're probably going into a depression.”

Freshman Ayanna Tucker, who's for Obama, loved the school debate. The real ones aired too late on school nights for her to watch.

Black history

At West Charlotte, where 87 percent of students are African American, history teacher John Michalski uses Obama to fight what he calls a “culture of academic suppression” – the notion that striving in school is acting white. He highlights Obama's education: a bachelor's degree from Columbia University and a law degree from Harvard.

During Thursday's history class for International Baccalaureate students, he segued from the abolition movement to Obama's candidacy. Would the election of a black president culminate the quest for equality, he asks students? If Obama loses, does that signal failure?

Angelique Roberson, 16, says the fact that he's gotten this far is important.

“If he is not elected, maybe America still does look to a white man to run the country,” she says. “But he's still a senator. Black people still have power in high places.”

Jameiya Estes, 16, says an Obama victory wouldn't mean the nation's racial struggle is over. She cites a case in which a black man wearing an Obama T-shirt was shot three times outside a convenience store by white men yelling racial slurs. (According to news accounts, the incident happened in England.)

“There is still like racism and inequality in this world, regardless,” she says.

Some West Charlotte students say Obama's race has rallied support for him, but others say there's more than that. Darrell Anderson, 16, says he's impressed by Obama's economic plan, something that's important as he prepares for college. Obama can be a role model, he says, not just because he's black but because he was raised by a single mother without a lot of money.

“He came up and he succeeded,” Anderson says. “A lot of people feel like he's an inspiration.”

Going to D.C.

Annie McCanless, who teaches Advanced Placement government classes at Providence, marveled as students crowded around the Kids Voting table Thursday. In 11 years at the south suburban school, she has never seen this kind of excitement about a presidential race.

Granted, not everyone's into it. “I just know one's black, one's white and really old, and one I haven't even heard of,” quipped 16-year-old Steven Adams, after casting a mock ballet with photos of Obama, McCain and Libertarian Bob Barr.

But others say political news is part of the daily conversation. Seventeen-year-old juniors Vaishali Rathee, Taylor Smith and Mitali Dayal even have their roles pegged: Dayal's the “radical” Obama fan, Smith is the moderate and Rathee offers skeptical detachment.

Thursday's topic was Obama's 30-minute commercial that aired the night before.

Rathee: “I thought it was a waste of money.”

Dayal: “I thought it was very moving.”

Rathee: “I think politics shouldn't be about spending hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Dayal: “It made me cry, dude.”

McCanless says Providence students are leaning heavily toward Obama – a change for a campus that tends to go Republican. The students who have signed up for her inauguration trip are a mix.

Ben Fullmer, a junior, prefers McCain, even though he thinks his campaign has turned into “a mud-slinging fest.”

“I don't like the concept of spreading the wealth too much,” Fullmer explains.

Jason Fishkin, a senior who plans to major in political science in college, is eager to see his man Obama make history. But Fishkin winces when asked if he gets to vote.

His 18th birthday is Nov. 6, two days too late.

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