By Kim Howard
On his first day of work in the U.S. Senate, Taylor Bates was forced to sit on the floor.
There were plenty of seats in the staffers’ gallery for Bates and the other new Senate pages that January day. But those in charge of the Senate Page Program had a point to make.
“In the Senate, seniority is everything,” Bates, 17, said on Tuesday. “They were trying to impress upon us as the youngest members of the Senate hierarchy, we were also the lowest members of the Senate hierarchy.”
After four and a half months in Washington, D.C., the Williston resident and Champlain Valley Union High School junior returned home last weekend with fond memories, new friends and a deeper sense of the power of government.
Nominated by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Bates was one of 30 high school juniors nationally to spend his spring semester delivering messages and packages, tallying votes and calling them in, fetching water for Senators, opening doors, and doing anything else that needed doing.
Bates said roughly half the time the Senate floor was silent – for example, when committee meetings were in progress. But he said he saw several “very good floor exchanges” between Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-N.C., on the immigration debate.
“Senator (Richard) Durbin and Senator (Ted) Kennedy were always very impressive speakers,” Bates added.
Bates and his peers lived in a former funeral home, now a dormitory, with a classroom in the basement. Days were long. School for the pages began at 6:15 a.m. and ended by 8:45 a.m. Pages were at work before the Senate was called to order, typically at 10 a.m.
Pages work rotating shifts, one hour on and one hour off, cramming homework into the hours they are not on call. The early shift finished by 6 p.m., Bates said. Once when Bates worked the late shift, the Senate adjourned at 1 a.m. Any adjournments after 10 p.m. meant school was canceled the next morning.
Bates, who was enrolled in several Advanced Placement classes last fall at CVU High School, doesn’t anticipate his senior year will be challenging compared with what he’s just been through.
“I worked 12-hour days with three hours of school and four hours of homework and have been able to survive that and come out of it with good grades,” he said. “I feel more prepared for college. I really feel much more – I feel like I understand people better.”
On the day Bates arrived, he could tell his new peer group was “an interesting slice of the country.”
“Someone would stand up and speak and suddenly the whole room would be filled with this deep southern drawl or a twangy Michigan accent,” Bates said.
Bates’s new best friends are from Mississippi and Washington. Leaving the other pages last weekend was far harder for Bates than leaving home in January, he said. Living together in tight dormitory quarters, in a high-pressure environment, meant a loss of personal space and the forging of bonds.
“Everyone has just developed such a great respect for each other,” he said. “It’s hard to go back to a place where people don’t know you as well.”
U.S. Congressional pages – whether they work in the Senate or the House – must be high school juniors, aged 16 or older. Pages are nominated by one of their state’s senators. Academic standing is among the most important criteria in the final selection of a page.
Being a Vermont Statehouse legislative page as an eighth grader is what strengthened Bates’ interest in applying to work at the national level. After a semester in the nation’s capital, watching how “one person can really change the world,” he said, Bates is looking forward to his future.
“I don’t know if I’d be honored to get to that position,” he said of senators. “I’ll play it by ear, kind of, but I’d like to be in a position where I can help history change, and help it change for the better.”
High school students who will be sophomores in the fall are eligible to apply for the next Senate Page Program deadline (Feb. 29, 2008) for the 2008-09 academic year. Information is available at the following Web site: leahy.senate.gov/office/senatepage.html