Benjamin Barsam recently wrapped up an opportunity that few 17 and 18-year-olds get, to be taken seriously by the adult members of a governing body.
Barsam, 18, served as the student member of the Harford County Board of Education for the 2013-2014 school year, an opportunity "to interact with some important adults on a level that not many 18-year-old kids get," he said in a recent interview, prior to beginning his Plebe Summer at the U.S. Naval Academy.
He graduated from Bel Air High School in June.
While student representatives have only partial voting rights, and state legislation restricts them from voting on major matters such as the budget, Barsam still had to educate himself on all matters that came before the school board, and he took part in discussions with department heads and principals as the FY2014-2015 budget was being developed.
"It was surprising, to be honest, how much of an ear I was given," he said.
Barsam called the budget "probably the most important aspect of the Board of Education's dealings, with regards to day-to-day student life."
"I think it speaks to the board members who were serving with me that they wanted the boots-on-the-ground opinion," he said.
Barsam lives in the Rock Spring area north of Bel Air. He left for the Naval Academy in early July.
"How could I be anything but excited, but the nervousness, it's getting me a little bit too," he said. "I know it'll be tough."
Barsam prepared himself physically and mentally for the Naval Academy's intense Plebe Summer induction period, when the incoming freshman class is put through physical training, military drills and educated in the traditions of the Naval Academy and the Navy.
He said he had been running six to seven times a week, memorizing required ratings, or Navy job designations, reading various accounts of Plebe Summer and asking as many friends as possible to "write me a little bit of a morale booster this summer."
"It's designed to be incredibly rigorous," he said of the training. "We're turning 18-year-old kids into midshipmen who are fit to lead sailors and Marines, so inherently it's got to be tough."
Barsam will enter the Naval Academy following a difficult year for the Harford County school board and school system, one during which school officials were at odds with parents and students over the school budget and unpopular fees to play interscholastic sports and participate in clubs, plus changes to bus schedules designed to save money.
Before he was elected by his fellow students to be on the school board, Barsam was in the opposition camp. As a sophomore at Bel Air High, he had prepared an "irate" speech to advocate for a pay increase for teachers during a June 2012 school board meeting.
"I was fed up with the Board of Education and these nine evil adults who were abusing their power," he said.
Barsam ended up not giving his speech when the board approved a 1 percent cost-of-living increase for teachers for the 2012-2013 school year. Raises negotiated with teachers other school employees the next year and the following year when Barsam served on the board were never implemented, however, after the county executive and county council declined to fund tens of millions of dollars of new funding requested by the school board.
Barsam said his perspective on the adult leaders changed after he was elected to be the representative of the school system's 38,000 students during his junior year through the Harford County Regional Association of Student Councils.
His predecessor, Patterson Mill High School graduate Panashe Mutombo, began introducing him to board members, and he also got to know his board colleagues during his year on the dais.
"Panashe was introducing me to the board members, and they weren't evil people - they were really nice," Barsam recalled.
Barsam was also able to meet with County Executive David Craig who he called "a good guy." They spent about 90 minutes talking.
"As an average student you don't realize that politicians are people, and even though you might not agree with their decisions, they think that they have your best interests in mind," he said. "They want what's best for their constituents."
In addition to serving on the school board, Barsam had to maintain an academic, extracurricular and social life.
He was on the swim team and took part in the spring and fall musicals his senior year; he was also president of the school's National Honor Society, took part in Bel Air's Varsity Club and HOPE Club service organizations, and he did speech and debate "when I could."
Barsam said he was not always able to make it to practices or swim meets, but his drama teachers and swim coach were willing to work around his commitment to the school board.
"The people around me were really the reason that I was able to continue to do the stuff that I loved," he said.
He said he also received support from his family and friends, such as spending time talking with him or getting a meal.
"I'm blessed to have such an amazing support network, not only for the job that I was given this year, but just to remain sane," he said.
Barsam has also been working with his successor for the 2014-2015 school year, Hannah Jones, a rising senior at Patterson Mill.
"She's been really helpful for me, discussing her viewpoints on things," he said. "She's a quick learner."
Barsam said he had advised Jones to not "be intimidated by the important adults – definitely be respectful, but you're there because the students thought that you ought to be there."
He also passed on a piece of advice from Mutombo, "learn to deal with 'no.'"
"Learn what to do if you get a 'no,' because its bound to happen," he explained.
Barsam said he also encouraged Jones to "take a moment once in a while and step back and give yourself some perspective" on the position that she is in, because the day-to-day work "can be pretty frustrating, pretty glum."
Barsam said his successor should remember that she is in a position few young people get to be in.
"You realize that that's really cool," he said.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun