For These Students, Primary Election Will Be a Hands-On Civics Lesson

Nov 17, 2015

Todd Demarais, one of the 20 seniors in Ms. Murdough's high school civics class at Kennett High School.
Credit Natasha Haverty / NHPR

For those of us who have been around a few election cycles, this year stands out from the others—outsiders favored over career politicians, new campaign finance rules and super PACs, an unwieldy candidate line up. But for first time voters—18 year olds—it’s all new. NHPR’s Natasha Haverty visited a civics class at Kennett High School in Conway, to hear from some of them.

It’s last period on a Thursday. For the next fifty minutes the assignment in this classroom is to take two presidential candidates—one red and one blue—and look at how they line up on the issues.

Sounds like a civics class in any school. But for this group of New Hampshire teenagers, politics is more than just a required course -- it's everywhere. For months, candidates have been campaigning down the road from where these kids are sitting, even right downstairs in the school auditorium.

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"They always   keep   on saying every vote counts for everything," senior Todd Demarais says. He says his parents raised him with the understanding that a vote in New Hampshire means a lot. He says politics is on the menu a lot of nights at his house.

"When we eat dinner together when any type of politics come up, my mother and father always bicker about it. ‘Cause they vote independent."

But unlike other years, this time, Demarais gets to cast a ballot too. He says he’ll definitely vote—probably for a Republican. He’s most concerned about gun control: "Because everything I have to do is based on hunting, fishing, outdoor careers. For hunting, it's a little worrying."

He says he’s also looking at what candidates are proposing on foreign policy, or even, if there’s going to be another draft.

"If something happens, if there’s gonna be a major problem where we start another war, I’d kind of like to know what’s gonna happen with us," he says.

Like any voter, Desmarais is thinking about these issues through the lens of his personal experience. Kathleen Murdough—or Ms. Murdough to these guys—says part of her job as a teacher is to push her students to think outside that lens.

"A lot of them have lived their whole lives. They haven’t been anywhere else," Murdough says. "Getting them to thinking about the impact in other places and the fact that this country is not one homogenous chunk is something that takes time."

Credit Natasha Haverty

Murdough says this bunch of teenagers pretty cleanly breaks down into a mini version of New Hampshire’s electorate.

In a corner on the other side of the room from Todd Desmarais, a young woman tells me she’ll be voting for a Democrat—she hopes Bernie Sanders—to cancel out her Uncle Robert’s vote for Donald Trump.

But what they all have in common: This stuff is fresh for them. They’re not jaded or bored. At the very least, they know they have a chance to be a part of this election for the first time.

Logan Lyman sits at the back of the class. When I first meet him, he tells me he’s not like his classmates,-- he doesn’t care about the election. He doesn’t even plan to vote. Why not?

"Because politics isn’t really my subject," Lyman says. "Whenever I hear politics on the news, I usually zone out. I know it has a really big effect on our country. But to me personally politics isn’t a big thing for me."

But a few minutes later, something clicks: Lyman comes across some of Republican candidate Rick Santorum’s statements about women in the workplace, and he gets kind of upset.

"It’s just me and my mom at the house, so if she didn’t have a job and I don’t have one either that would be really, really, really bad…"

Whipple Roberts and his teammate wear their football jerseys and sit at the front of the room. Roberts says he’s excited to have a voice in the coming presidential election. 

"I guess it’s one of the more important things we get to learn about because it’s something we’ll actually use," Roberts says. "Compared to, like, calculus or something like that."

He says his choice will be his own—not his parents'.

"I probably won’t vote for the same person as my dad and I have no clue on who my mom would vote for," he says.

Kyle O’Keefe has a seat in the middle of the room. He folds the wool cap he got for Christmas last year and places it carefully at the edge of his desk.

"I’m sure you’ve met a few people who don’t really know or care," he says.

O’Keefe wants me to know: he isn’t one of them. He’s been waiting to vote since the last presidential election, when he was a freshman. He says he’s been obsessed ever since.

O’Keefe and his parents live with his grandfather.

"My mom and dad don’t have enough money to afford our own home," he says.

Students at Kennett High School in Conway have occasionally had a front row view of this year's presidential primary race.
Credit Natasha Haverty / NHPR

He says the issue that’s most on his mind right now is student debt—and how someone like him could ever pay for school.

"It gets personal. Me not having much money to pay for anything, my family’s not that rich, realizing I may not be able to pay for college," O'Keefe says.

His plan for now is to go to school for nursing. He says his dream is to earn enough money that some day he can afford his own home. And O'Keefe says he’s sure, no matter what, he’ll always vote.