Gov. Maggie Hassan paused, her pen poised over a document. “What was the name of your town when it was founded?” she asked a group of Derry fourth-graders. “Nutfield!” they chorused.
While most fourth-graders get one trip to the New Hampshire State House in Concord, Amy Landry and Sandi Ward’s class from Derry Village Elementary School scored three this year: first, the regulation fourth-grade tour; second, a trip to see their bill voted on in the House of Representatives; and third, on Tuesday, June 4, when Hassan signed the student-originated bill into law and proclaimed the white potato the State Vegetable for New Hampshire.
It was the civics lesson of Landry’s career, and a hands-on lesson in government for both her students and last year’s fourth-graders, who originated the project.
Ward teaches English and language arts, while Landry focuses on science and social studies. The issue of the white potato, which was brought to America by Nutfield founder James MacGregor and his Scotch-Irish companions, came up after last year’s fourth-grade State House tour.
“On that tour, Virginia Drew, the director of the Visitors’ Center, told the children that another group of fourth-graders had sponsored a bill to establish a state color, but it ‘died’ before being passed,” Landry said. Drew’s casual comment was the catalyst for what came next. The class wanted to explore the possibility of sponsoring a bill to declare the white potato the state vegetable.
Landry recalls “arguing a lot” about the pros and cons of the project. But she couldn’t find a “con,” and she couldn’t find a better vegetable. “It’s important not only to New Hampshire, but to United States history,” she said. This year’s fifth-graders turned the project over to their successors. The children researched the process to make a bill become law, and enlisted the help of State Rep. John O’Connor, R-Derry. “It went from the classroom to the State House,” Landry said.
And she, Ward and the children went along. It’s the first time the veteran teachers have seen one of their classes sponsor a bill, and Landry said it was a moving experience for her too. “I haven’t slept in, like, forever,” she said. “When the House approved it, she was brought to tears,” Ward said, “I am so proud to think that 10-year-olds came up with this idea, and were able to follow through.”
At the State House, the children, teachers and a sprinkling of parents were joined by Derry Representatives O’Connor, David Milz, David Thompson and James Webb, all Republicans; and Democrat Mary Till. State Sen. James Rausch, R-Derry, was also present. State Rep. Brian Chirichiello, R-Derry, borrowed a camera from Cable Channel 17 so he could film the signing.
The life lesson for the children continued as Landry and Ward coached them in proper behavior, including forming a line and keeping their voices down. Hassan appeared briefly to greet them, then slipped back into her office to take care of a few details. The children filed into the Governor’s Chambers, a rectangular room with chandeliers, heavy dark furniture and portraits of past New Hampshire notables in gold frames. Landry and Ward posed with them for a group picture as parents’ cameras clicked. Tall windows let in a warm spring breeze, and a glass vase held rhododendrons from a bush out front.
Hassan came in and made a few brief remarks. “This is a big deal,” she told the children. “It’s not easy to get a bill passed. But you have demonstrated that it’s never too early to start.” Hassan referred to New Hampshire’s “long tradition of civic involvement,” and said her door was open to the Derry kids. “If you come and I’m here, I’ll say hello,” she promised.
She signed both the official bill and a copy for Landry to keep in the classroom, and gave Landry the pen she used for signing. After she left, the Derry group posed for more pictures in the Chamber. Dick Gerrish of Kingston visited with his grandson, Xavian Johnson, one of the Derry students. “It was a big experience for our class, and very exciting,” Xavian said. But he wasn’t surprised, he added, saying, “I knew it would go this far.”
Gerrish, who grew up in Massachusetts, praised New Hampshire’s tradition of civic involvement. “When I came to New Hampshire, I was impressed,” Gerrish said. “Anyone can get up and speak on any bill.”
While the Derry kids were excited and happy, they weren’t surprised their bill had gotten this far, they said. “This is awesome, very cool,” Jacob Arsenault said. It helped him understand the process better, and whetted his appetite for more civic work.
“Maybe I’ll try a bill for a state color,” Jacob said. Autumn Olson admitted she was nervous at the signing, but added it was fun at the same time. As for Hassan, she said, “She’s nice!” Sofia Eckerson said, “I was, like, wow this is amazing, we got a bill passed!” Erin Logan said she was nervous too, but now understood the process better.
Though the bill is now law, ripples continue to spread, according to Landry. Children’s musician Steve Blunt wrote a song in honor of the potato, and sang it in her classroom later in the week.
And one of the mothers got her business to sponsor Potato T-shirts for every student in the class. They wore them to the House vote, Landry said, but decided against them for the bill signing. Gesturing to the girls in sparkly dresses and boys with slicked-back hair, she said, “They wanted to dress up for this.”