For this "trial" of a bitter child custody case, the "father" is portrayed by high school senior Ron Noble, 18. The "mother" is senior citizen Mary Mohler, a retiree. And the "grandmothers" of the two children are Pearl Pollack, 77, and Cathy Smith, 17.
The unusual casting, in which roles were assigned without regard to the players' ages, was typical of the intergenerational family law class at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville. Young and old meet there each Tuesday to confront stereotyped ideas about each other and about such controversial issues as corporal punishment, the Karen Quinlan case, and child custody rights and responsibilities.
"The students have really opened up to the seniors," said Allie Alvez, a teacher at the high school. "The seniors are seeing that the students have contributions to make, and we found they aren't that far apart on their views."
Based on a project developed by the National Council on Aging and supported by Montgomery County's Interages, a nonprofit group, this class is one example of a growing movement across the nation to promote harmony through intergenerational activities.
Other examples of programs in the Washington area include: In Fairfax County, about 25 senior citizens serve as volunteer resources for four elementary schools in Seniors Providing Oral History in the Classroom. One elderly woman who lived in Japan talked about her experiences with classes studying Japan. A veteran of the Korean war talked to classes about that experience. In Arlington, 15 to 20 students from Oakridge Elementary School participate in intergenerational activities at a senior center in the nearby Gunston Community Center. Earlier this month, students and senior citizens trimmed the center tree, sang carols and sampled holiday refreshments. In Northwest Washington, the Columbia Senior Center is recruiting senior citizens to help care for about 20 children from Powell Elementary School between 3 and 6 p.m. weekdays.
About 600 schools around the country have used the NCOA program material since it was introduced two years ago, said supervising editor Ronald J. Manheimer. In the Washington area, Richard Montgomery is the first public school to try the program. One other local school, St. Patrick's Episcopal day school in Northwest Washington, used the material last year, he said.
Interages, a county-supported organization, helped recruit eight senior citizens to participate in the Richard Montgomery class with 24 students who are taking it as an elective.
"What we hope will come out of this is a better appreciation of the other generation," said Interages director Austin Heyman, a retired federal worker who helped establish the group last year.
"Kids today are growing up with erroneous views of the aging process because they are removed from their grandparents, who may be in California or St. Louis," Heyman said. "They don't have the contact that previous generations had."
As for the senior citizens, Heyman said, "some of them haven't been in a classroom in 40 years or more and they have developed views, for instance, that kids are preoccupied with sex or other things. But we have found from other programs that those views can be changed by having the adults come to school once a week for seven or eight weeks."
This change in senior citizens' thinking, Heyman said, can lead to their having "more positive "Kids today are growing up with erroneous views of the aging process because they are removed from their grandparents . . . . "
-- Austin Heyman
feelings about the school budget, if they have a better understanding of what the schools offer."
In Montgomery County, some school advocates have expressed concern that an increasing elderly population may lead to erosion in public support for school spending, especially at a time of declining school enrollment. These issues were cited during a debate over the county school budget last spring.
For the mock trial, students worked side by side with senior citizens to produce a courtroom case described in a textbook, "The Family, the Courts and the Constitution."
With retired Montgomery County Circuit judge Joseph M. Mathias in his official black robe presiding from the bench, the attorneys took their seats and called their witnesses.
Huddled at one table was counsel for the father: Alex Balzer, 76, Katie Lee, 16, and Ron Cha, 17. The three took turns asking questions and making objections in a team effort to downplay their client's alleged drinking problem.
At the counsel table for the mother were three other attorneys: Franc Balzer, 76, who is Alex Balzer's wife; Felicia Eng, 15, and Tom Sippel, 16. They tried to paint their client as an abused wife who had left home, husband and sons four years earlier out of fear for her safety.
The judge ultimately ruled in favor of the father because he had taken care of the boys after the mother left.
The Balzer couple, both retired social workers, said they came away from the program convinced that today's students "weren't that much different from our own kids when they were this age."
But for Eng, a sophomore cheerleader, the presence of the senior citizens in the classroom was a link to an earlier time.
"They remembered when the milkman came to the house," she said. "They told us how they were hit when they were in school" because corporal punishment was allowed.
Martin Freel, 17, wearing one tiny gold earring, was impressed by an account by one senior citizen who, as a young woman, had been denied admission to college because of her sex. "It really showed how things have changed," he said.