In today’s politically charged environment, one that is objectively less orthodox than the political climates of recent years, discussion and debate has become a normal part of society for many. This, according to some, has even extended into local high schools, where teenagers latched onto a presidential election with unprecedented entertainment value and polarization.
As a result, the need for a space to safely and orderly orchestrate dialogue and debate about politics and current events has become palpable, and at Pilgrim High School a teacher/student duo is filling that void with a new club designed with the sole mission of fostering more discussion among the students.
“Mainly this club is going to get a diverse amount of people into a classroom to debate, learn how to debate, learn how to get your confidence level up and get your feet wet talking to a group of people,” said Zachary LaFontaine, president and brainchild of the High School Political Involvement Club (HSPI) at Pilgrim.
Paula Merdink, an English teacher of 17 years at Pilgrim who is volunteering to be the club’s advisor and its vice-chair, said that she is excited to be helping with the creation and growth of the club as she has noticed an increased interest in political discussions and current events from her students since the last presidential election began.
“When that began, I saw an immediate interest and almost an intrigue into the campaigns from freshmen – 14-year-olds – that I had never seen before,” she said. “And I teach 9th graders every year, three classes of them…On Mondays the kids want to talk not only about football scores and who won the games – they’re interested in current events and what happened in the news.”
She called LaFontaine a “go-getter” and praised him for his desire to start the club and bring more collaboration and discussion between students at Pilgrim, which she believes has had some rocky moments recently due to students from other parts of the city – some who used to be rivals with Pilgrim – now attending Pilgrim as part of the consolidation plan of the schools.
Merdink also believes that providing a place to gain experience in debating and discussing is invaluable experience for when the kids grow up and must make decisions in the voting booth.
“I’m not one to keep things the same. The world changes, we have to change with it,” she said. “We’ve got to get these kids aware of what’s out there, because it’s only four short years before they start voting.”
The club will utilize the Promethean Board in Merdink’s classroom to go provide overviews of topics, cutting through misconceptions and misleading news, and it will urge kids to get out into the community and engage in their local political processes – like school committee meetings – which is where LaFontaine began to find an interest in politics.
That interest led him to research groups and clubs that he could possibly bring to Pilgrim. He found the High School Democrats of RI, and took the steps to start a chapter in Warwick – the first of its kind. He is hoping that the club will catch on, grow and become something he can look back on and be proud for starting. It would certainly help with his career aspirations.
“I want to do this when I get older,” he said, also expressing interest in starting his own business. “I see how politics works. You debate, you talk, you communicate and use your words and I think that’s cool. I like the whole idea of it…This club is right up my alley.”
LaFontaine was class president his sophomore year and is now the junior class president at Pilgrim. He is part of the National Society of High School Scholars, the National Honors Society and has received special citation awards from Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello.
“He’s a tremendous leader for his class, a leader for the school and he comes up with some great, different ideas for how to move things forward,” said principal Gerry Habershaw.
LaFontaine hopes to be able to bring state senators and representatives into the school to help facilitate discussions and further drum up interest in political dialogue among the students. As part of the larger organization, club administrative positions may be eligible to go to the Statehouse to get real experience in the professional political climate.
The meetings are set to begin next Tuesday and Wednesday after school. They will be held in Merdink’s room, number 602. She said that they have recruited a culinary-inclined student to bake cookies for the meetings as an added incentive to join the fun. It is open to everybody, from all grades.
“I’m very excited because it’s something new, it hasn’t been done and there’s such a huge need for it,” Merdink said.