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A High School's Lesson in Democracy

Montgomery Blair High School Clarie Middleton, 15, is the lone vote for impeachment in a 10th-grade social studies discussion in Silver Spring, Md. (Larry Morris — The Washington Post)

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  • By Libby Ingrid Copeland
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Wednesday, December 16, 1998; Page D1

    "Well, it depends on your definition of 'sexual,' " says Timothy Bingaman with the frank pragmatism of someone who has heard this said before.

    "Look at this face," says Ethel Poku, holding up a magazine with her president's mug on the front. "Does this look like the face of a man who would lie to you?" You almost expect her to pinch his glossy paper cheeks.

    In a 10th-grade social studies classroom at Montgomery Blair High School yesterday, the air buzzed with talk of oral sex and perjury and alternatives to impeachment. "Whip him!" ran one suggestion. What else do you talk about when you get to the chapter on the executive branch?

    Think of it as a study in political science, a means to sharpen analytical and rhetorical skills, a boost for sex education.

    Or call it an exercise in spinning your wheels.

    "It's like an old song you can never get rid of. You turn on the TV, it's like Clinton this, Clinton that," says Ethel, a vociferous Clinton defender.

    Her teacher, Tracy Rohrbaugh -- who at 24 is younger than Monica Lewinsky herself -- is leading this discussion in anticipation of a reenactment of the Nixon impeachment hearings later in the week.

    The 15- and 16-year-olds file quietly into their capacious classroom and arrange themselves in a horseshoe of assigned seats, precisely at 9:10 a.m. This is the Silver Spring high school's new building, all space and bright colors and modern angles.

    "You guys don't need to take this personally," Rohrbaugh cautions. "So if someone has an opinion that's different from yours, that's okay."

    Too late. They're up on their feet, talking out of turn, waving their arms, puffing opinions pungent as garlic breath, staging a raucous debate even though all but one are in agreement.

    The affair is a sexual matter and a personal one, the class maintains. "This is legal. He can do this," says Timothy of the president's illicit relationship with Lewinsky. It's "between him and Hillary."

    "You guys don't believe the president should serve as some sort of role model?" Rohrbaugh asks.

    "Come on. Be real," says Eugenia Oliver.

    "Nobody's upset about the fact that your president has been caught having an affair?"

    "No!" the class shouts. The question they really want answered is, who's to blame for this national mess?

    "Whoever brought it up in the first place," says Yetta Adeduro.

    Ken Starr, says Ethel. "He's being nosy."

    The Paula Jones lawsuit, says Evan Case. If Starr had never meddled in that, none of this would have started.

    Linda Tripp, says Ethel. "What right does she have taping someone else's conversation?"

    The press, says Jorge Velasquez. "No offense to the media lady," he says with a nod to the corner, "but the media does hype up a lot. The media controls everything. They can, like, put thoughts and stuff into the congressmen's heads."

    Jorge is a proponent of the relativist approach to truth-telling. "Even if he lied about this, he's done a lot of good things," he says of Clinton. "It's human nature to lie." Besides, he adds later, "He didn't lie about, oh, this country's got nuclear warheads or something."

    "But he could," says Claire Middleton, the class's lone dissenter. Once in a while she starts up a defense of impeachment -- lying is its own slippery slope, she says -- and then the rest of the class rises in a tidal wave and swallows her.

    Who even knows if Clinton was lying, Ethel says -- perhaps he just forgot about gifts he gave Monica, for example. "He don't remember 'cause he's got so much on his mind."

    The sexual relativists also beg understanding. "He" -- that's Ken Starr -- "asked him" -- the president -- "if he had sex, right?" says Josue Caal. "But they had oral sex. Oral sex and sex ain't the same."

    As the class of 22 moves through the articles of impeachment, though, they grow more uncertain. Several anti-impeachers break ranks. Perhaps, Timothy suggests, with what seems like desperation, the problem lies with the rules and regulations. "Some of the laws are wrong," he says.

    "Just 'cause it's a law doesn't make it right," seconds Jorge.

    Change the Constitution! several suggest. "We voted him into office," says Colin Anthony. (Well, not actually.) "We can vote him out."

    By the time the class moves to the last article, abuse of power, 12 are undecided. This business about misleading Congress is tricky.

    Why is this last count so hard to pin down, Rohrbaugh asks.

    "It's hard to define," Jorge says. "It's like the definition of sex."

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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