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'I want to really be in the thick of everything'

The Baltimore Sun

Megan Novak had mixed emotions about her trip to Annapolis.

She was assigned to work in the Senate chambers, but she didn't have any idea what to do or where to go. But things quickly changed for the C. Milton Wright High School senior.

"At first it was nerve-wracking," said Novak, 17, one of 15 pages at the state capital two weeks ago. "But I knew that what I was doing was a privilege. I was able to get into any building that I wanted, and not many people can do that."

Novak is one of 105 high school seniors throughout the state selected to work as pages for members of the Maryland General Assembly during the 2008 session.

The program was piloted in 1970 after Thomas Hunter Lowe, a former speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates, suggested it as a way to introduce students to the democratic process, said Cornelia Watson, who has spent 38 years as the page/intern coordinator.

The program is open to all seniors in public or private schools. Students are nominated by teachers and then selected by a committee headed by a county page coordinator.

Each county has a designated number of slots for pages. The page allotments include: Harford, 5 pages, 1 alternate; Baltimore County, 14 pages, 4 alternates; Howard, 6 pages, 1 alternate; Anne Arundel, 10 pages, 2 alternates.

Once the pages are selected, they work for two non-consecutive weeks during the 13-week legislative session.

In December, the Harford County pages had breakfast with local politicians at one of the county high schools.

The breakfast is a way to help put the students at ease, said Sen. Barry Glassman, who moved to the Senate earlier this month after nine years in the House of Delegates.

"We talk to the students about the experience they will have when they come to Annapolis," Glassman said. "We tell them that not many people get to stand on the House or Senate floor to see democracy in action."

During the first week, the pages are assigned to the House of Delegates or the Senate and given orientation. Their duties include updating the bill books, copying and distributing materials on the floor to the legislators, running errands, answering the phone, and delivering notes and messages between the members.

"Once session begins, the only people allowed on the floor are the press, politicians and the pages," Watson said. "The pages do the nuts and bolts things that keep democracy flowing."

The students are paid $42 per day. The stipend covers the cost of housing, which is $20 per day, and the remaining $22 can be used for food, Watson said.

The pages play an integral part in the flow of the democratic process, Glassman said. They were missed during a recent special session.

"It was 12 a.m. and everyone was looking for amendments that we needed," he said. "It made us realize how much the pages really do."

Del. Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio concurred.

"When we get to the floor, we have to remain seated, until a vote is completed," she said. "We might need a copy of something, or we might need to get a note to a colleague. And then after a vote is taken the results are printed out, and the pages are often overwhelmed with requests for copies of the vote results."

At the same time, the student pages were able to see that politicians are just people like everyone else, Glassman said.

"Sometimes the kids come in a little intimidated, but they soon learn that we are all just regular people," said Glassman of Darlington, who works as a sheep farmer and a claims adjuster. "They get to see that democracy boils down to a debate of issues."

After watching the political process on television, Troy Shuman of Bel Air, who will have his orientation in early February, said he wanted to get a behind-the-scenes look at government at work.

"I plan to go to as many committee meetings as possible," said Shuman, a C. Milton Wright senior who wants to become a lawyer. "I want to have a better appreciation for the whole system. I want to really be in the thick of everything."

McKenzie Hull, who attends Fallston High, has similar plans. Her brother, Ian, was a page in 2003, and he told her to go to as many meetings and extra things as possible.

"I have always been very involved with student government," said Hull, who was the president of the Harford County Regional Association of Student Councils. "I like to represent the students and impact change for them. I want to listen to the things that may affect us someday."

When Haddaway-Riccio was a page in 1995, she said she learned a lot about the political process. But she was most intrigued with the camaraderie of the politicians.

"I was so fascinated with the way the delegates argued hot issues and then went to lunch together when it was done," she said.

On her first day, Novak, who wants to work in international relations, performed such duties as testing the voting buttons, filling the bill books and running errands for state senators.

"It was neat to be in the room and see how the Senate is run," Novak said. "We learn about government in the classroom, but it isn't as refined as the real thing."

Although the week was slow, it was intense, Novak said. A memorial session was held for former Sen. Gwendolyn Britt, who passed away recently at the age of 66.

"Her family was there, and some of them were crying," Novak said. "And there was a wreath of roses lying on her desk all week, so it was very emotional all week long."

Shuman is anxious to participate in another momentous occasion. He is scheduled to work the final week of the session.

"I'm so excited that I'll get to be there at midnight when the gavel goes down," Shuman said. "But at the same time, it will be sad, because it will all be over."

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