Yesterday was not the time to ask Christine Todd Whitman about the standard for arsenic in drinking water.
The Environmental Protection Agency administrator was busy with questions of her own, for Odenton Elementary School fifth-grader Corey Grove.
Gently, she shook his hand, then asked about the wildflower meadow his class is planting near a stream outside the school.
In a grown-up voice, with television microphones catching every word, Corey explained how the meadow would serve as a buffer strip to block runoff from the stream.
Whitman complimented the boy's answers, then headed off to join her colleagues visiting the Anne Arundel County public school - Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton and Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman - who were on their way to plant a tree a few hundred feet away.
It isn't every day that a trio of Cabinet officials shows up to launch an elementary school's Earth Week celebration.
But aside from clicking cameras and broom-sized microphones, yesterday's ceremony at Odenton Elementary was fairly low-key. Even Whitman's remark that she would be seeing the president today raised few eyebrows.
Before their sleek, chauffeur-driven cars whisked them back to Washington, three of the Bush administration's most powerful women squeezed in a few science experiments and gave a quick ecology pep talk to the children.
Whitman asked whether any had ever seen someone throwing litter onto the street and asked that person to stop. A smattering of hands shot up.
"Well, at the EPA, we sort of do the same thing, only on a slightly different level," said Whitman, the former New Jersey governor. "If we find a factory polluting the air, we make them stop. If we find a factory polluting the water, we make them stop.
"But," Whitman added, "we can't do it alone."
She told the children to watch what their parents buy at the grocery store and to respect the planet.
"Don't let anyone tell you that you can't make a difference right now," she said.
With that, she joined Norton and Veneman as they sprinkled dirt around a white spruce taken to the school from a former coal mining area in central Pennsylvania.
Bush administration critics have accused Whitman and Norton of embracing policies that harm the environment - Whitman for waffling on the standard for arsenic in drinking water, Norton for her willingness to explore drilling in an Arctic wildlife refuge. But Whitman said yesterday that the school event was not staged because of recent criticism.
"This is something we would have done normally," she said. "Ann and Gale and I meet on a regular basis. We thought it would be good to send a message about how this Cabinet does interact."
Added Norton: "It's far more than a tree-planting ceremony. It gives us an opportunity to personalize our goals."
If the ceremony seemed easygoing, the arrangements were even more so.
Odenton Elementary Principal Robert Wagner had arranged for the EPA's mobile lab to set up its experiments outside the school for Earth Week. The lab, part of the EPA's Environmental Science Center at Fort Meade, regularly travels to area schools.
But last week, Robin Danesi, the lab's outreach coordinator, received a call from Whitman's office. The three Cabinet officials were looking to attend a couple of events for Earth Day, and Danesi's sounded like a good one.
"Up until it actually happened, we weren't sure it was going to happen," Danesi said.
Wagner took a chance that it would - and teachers prepped the children on the Cabinet officials and their agencies.
Even so, some forgot a few of the details.
"I've heard of the EPA, but I didn't know what it stood for until today," said Cory Warren, another fifth-grader.
Like most pupils, he didn't get to talk to the famous visitors. But he looked on as classmate Corey Grove told Whitman about the class meadow project.
It "felt great" to talk to Whitman, Corey said, but added that he was also nervous because he knew he was talking to an important person. "She's the chief administrator. She protects the environment of the United States."