VERMILLION — Place a politician into a roomful of curious news reporters and there’s a chance that mayhem will ensue, with questions being shouted and the elected office holder trying his or her best to come up with a politically correct answer.
It’s a process that doesn’t always work well, judging from recent television news coverage of political press conferences.
Place a politician into a roomful of inquisitive fourth graders, however, and no shouting erupts. Everyone is quiet and polite. Observers will notice that all of the questions get answered.
They’ll also become aware that fourth graders come up with some darn good questions.
That’s what happened Tuesday morning when U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson, who happened to be in Vermillion that day, stopped by the classroom of fourth-grade teacher Nicolette Koch at Jolley Elementary School. Also on hand was Becky Rider, the fourth-graders’ music teacher.
This was no chance encounter. Something important began weighing on the students’ minds last month – an issue so important they decided to do something.
They decided to write their Congressman. They also included Mike Rounds and John Thune, South Dakota’s two U.S. senators, in this letter they crafted last month with the help of Rider:
"In our music class this September 11, we talked about how Senators and Representatives came together on the Capitol steps on September 11, 2001 and sang ‘God Bless America.’ Our fourth grade class would like to suggest that Congress make that a tradition on EVERY September 11," the fourth graders wrote. "We hope it would help everyone realize that it shouldn’t take a big tragedy like 9/11 to bring Congress and the country together instead of being divided.
"We hope you might be the leaders in making this happen starting next year," the students wrote in their letter addressed to Johnson, Rounds and Thune, "and it would mean a lot to us if you could write back."
The letter is signed "Mrs. Koch’s 4th Grade Class (Miss Rider’s Music Class), Jolley Elementary School" and it contains, in miniature Declaration of Independence style, the signature of every member of the class.
Johnson pulled the original letter the students had mailed to him out of his jacket pocket as he introduced himself and began a conversation with the pupils.
"What made you guys decide to write that letter?" he asked.
"We were singing a song in music class," replied fourth-grader Nessa Birkeland with her soft voice, "and we learned that our Congressmen came together … on 9/11 and we thought it would be cool to have that be a tradition that you sang ‘God Bless America’ on the White House steps."
The conversation that followed included a lesson from Johnson pointing out the difference between the White House and the U.S. Capitol, where he works and where members of Congress gathered to sing last month.
"I think that’s an excellent idea," Johnson said of the students’ suggestion. "You sometimes think that all Republicans and Democrats do is fight in Washington, DC and I just have to tell you, luckily, it’s not true.
"Every week in Washington there are bills that get passed with a couple hundred Democrat votes and a couple hundred Republican votes," he told the class. "Some of my best friends in Washington, D.C. are Democrats. I’m a Republican, and we get along. There is a lot more working together than I think you probably realize, which is good. We all should be working together."
He talked about good friends he has made with fellow members of Congress, including Rep. Kelly Armstrong of North Dakota, whose birthday was Tuesday. Johnson took a video on his smartphone of the students wishing Armstrong a happy birthday.
The moment with the most meaning for the students came when Johnson addressed the question they had posed in their letter.
"We did that this last year on 9/11. Republicans and Democrats came together on the House side (of the Capitol building) – I don’t know what the senators did – all of the House members came together and we sang ‘God Bless America’ on the steps," he said.
He played a video of the event on his phone and made sure all of the students could see the members of Congress standing on the Capitol steps and hear the singing.
"It was really, really beautiful," Johnson said, adding that this is an event that is held every year on Sept. 11.
Soon the discussion turned into a brief Civics lesson as he talked about the number of people who serve in Congress and their great diversity.
"It’s just a good reminder that when you look around, everybody has got something to offer and that people from every state in every (Congressional) district are going to vote for you because they think you’re going to make the right decisions," he said.
"Were you dreaming of becoming this when you were little?" a boy in the class asked.
"I kind of did," Johnson replied, adding that there had been different times in his life when he had been interested in politics. "When I was your age, I was absolutely interested in politics; I thought I wanted to be president of the United States."
He added that he grew up in a rather poor family of seven people and he remembered reading books about Abraham Lincoln growing up in a family that was also poor.
"Abraham Lincoln read so much and he walked to libraries to borrow books because they didn’t have a lot of their own and I thought, ‘if Abraham Lincoln could serve, I could, too,’" Johnson said.
"How did you come up with the idea (to run for Congress)?" a student asked.
"I thought, like you guys did, that there was way too much fighting in Washington and I’ve just been somebody who has always been called to work together and build bridges and be friendly and I just felt like we needed more of that energy in Washington," he said.
Johnson made a promise to the students when it came time for them to return to their studies.
"I will never forget how important it is for us to come together as a country," he said. "Every Sept. 11, when my colleagues go out on the steps and sing that song, I will never skip it. I’ll never forget it … my commitment to you is I’ll be on those steps every year because it’s important to do that."
Just before meeting with the fourth graders earlier that morning, Johnson asked Rider if the students knew that members of Congress had, last Sept. 11, gathered on the Capitol for the customary singing of "God Bless America."
"No," Rider replied. "They thought that you only had done it the first year. They were hoping that you would take the leadership to make sure it got done every year."
"I didn’t want to burst their bubble and say ‘good idea, but … ‘" Johnson said.
"I think it’s great for them to know that you’re already doing it, but maybe you’re not publicizing it," Rider said, noting that another important lesson was learned that morning. "The biggest takeaway, I think, is we have a responsive democracy."