Digest>Archives> May 1997

Maine Junior High School Students push for lighthouse license plate.

By Timothy Harrison


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The students of Noble Junior High School were ...

The students of Noble Junior High School were allowed to sit at the desks of Maine Legislators in the Maine House of Representatives. Secretary of State Dan Gwadosky, holding up a picture of the students' proposed lighthouse license plate said, "I agree, the plate is very attractive and better represents Maine than other ideas presented." He went on to say that his opinion didn't count since he was not allowed to vote on the issue. More than 100 students from Noble Junior High School in Berwick, Maine travelled the long journey to Maine's state capitol in their ongoing quest for a Maine lighthouse license plate.

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Students Tina Stanton and Kayla Knight (the ...

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Benjamin Bragdon gives his presentation to the ...

The students learned way too soon the hard lesson of the imperfections of democracy, when they found out that the Senator in charge of the committee they were about to testify in front of was out to stop them.

It was back in October of last year, when the students in this seventh grade class came up with the idea of designing a new license plate, when it was announced in the newspapers that Maine's old plate, featuring a lobster, was going to be discontinued as of the year 2000.

The students, with the help of their teacher, Barbara Rodden, discussed many possible designs and finally concluded that a lighthouse and a pine tree best represented the state of Maine.

A local artist, Virginia Souza, was invited to the classroom to help them with their design. The final design featured West Quoddy Head Light, a pine tree, the ocean, green grass, and blue sky, all things that the students felt represented Maine. The students said they picked West Quoddy Head Light over other lighthouses because it was more colorful and because it is the eastern most lighthouse on the mainland of the United States.

The students mustered up support for their idea and found a number of Maine Representatives and Senators who were willing to sponsor their lighthouse license plate and introduce their license plate design as a bill in the Maine State Legislature.

Then it came time for the students to travel to the state Capitol to testify. Although Senator William O'Gara, the Chair of the Transportation Committee, had been previously notified that 120 students were coming with a request for a large hearing room, the students were informed on their arrival that only 15 students would be allowed in the regular hearing room and no large room was set aside for them. After getting a tour of the Capital Building and the Legislative chambers, most of the students, totally disappointed, were sent home, leaving only 15 to testify.

That's when the real shock came. They were told that the Committee had already voted on a new plate design, which featured a chickadee and a pine cone as the new official license plate for the state of Maine. This prompted a shouting battle between one of the students' sponsors and Senator O'Gara. The supporters wanted to know how the committee could vote on one plate design, favored by Senator O'Gara, before hearing from the other plate designs that were also under consideration. This prompted one supporter to say that Senator O'Gara should be reported to the Ethics Committee for violations.

One thing led to another and the students were allowed to testify. And testify they did. They made such a good impression on the other committee members that they were invited back the following week to take part in the committee's workshop on the issue. Some of the Representatives said it was the best presentation they had ever heard and the students and their teacher were to be commended on doing a fantastic job.

On their return visit, the students were even more ready than before. They were all decked out in their trademark white T-shirts which they had worn the week before featuring their lighthouse plate design. (The cost of the shirts had been donated by a local business man.)

Senator O'Gara opened up the meeting by saying that the Task Force, appointed by the committee, represented a cross section of the state, and they did not want public input for a new license plate design. He went on to say the Task Force spent a lot of time on this project, at taxpayer expense, to come up with the chickadee design. He also said that the chickadee best represented Maine because it was personable, sociable, alert, animated and carefree, like the people of Maine.

Lighthouse lovers replied that the students worked just as hard as the Task Force, and they came up with a better idea and didn't get paid for it. Virginia Souza said, "I don't think the bottom line is who did the most work. I think the bottom line is who designed the best plate."

To which Senator O'Gara said, "It is unfair for anybody to suggest that we are doing these boys and girls and injustice."

The students won an ally in Rep. William Lemke, who had originally proposed a license plate featuring a loon. He stepped before the committee and stated that he and his co-sponsors of the Loon plate, after hearing the students' eloquent and viable reasons for a lighthouse, were withdrawing their bill, and throwing their support behind the students' proposed lighthouse license plate design.

The students answered questions from the committee on how they designed the plate, how the size was accurate to the state's specifications, why they picked West Quoddy Lighthouse and why they felt it represented all the state, not just coastal areas. They told the committee how lighthouses played a role in the growth of Maine, protecting shipping lanes with a special emphasis in the logging industry. They read quotes about Maine's lighthousees from famous people such as former Senator George Mitchell who called Maine "The Lighthouse State," They went to say how lighthouses continue to serve the states economy through tourism, and talked about the brave deeds of the Keepers of yesterday.

The students reminded the committee that most of them would be getting their license in the year 2000, just in time for a plate design that they worked towards.

The committee voted again. This time four of the 13 members voted for the lighthouse. Not a unanimous decision, but it was enough votes under Maine law to get the bill on the floor of the legislature where all the members of the Legislature can now debate the issue and then cast their vote.

There is more to this story than just the lighthouse issue. It is a story about students who didn't just talk about doing something, they really did it. They researched the facts and studied the issues and then they followed through.

Unfortunately, one of Maine's largest newspapers, The Bangor Daily News, through a news story by Bruce Kyle, didn't like the idea that students would be smart enough to come up with their own idea and expect it to pass. Bruce Kyle wrote, and we quote, "Now, young people speaking their minds is commendable (as long as they do it out of my earshot)." He went on to write, "Shall our course be set by a segment of the population that views body piercing as viable art form? Not bloody likely."

The newspaper then asked their readers to come up with license plate design and send them to the paper saying, "Remember it's your future, it's your state."

To think that the Bangor Daily News, one of Maine's largest newspapers would take this type of stand is almost unimaginable. The state of Maine published in every newspaper that a new license plate design was needed and anyone had the right to submit ideas. No one did, except the students from Noble Junior High School in the tiny town of Berwick, Maine, (an inland community which is about as far away from West Quoddy Lighthouse in the state of Maine as you can get). They got their idea introduced in the State Legislature, they travelled to the state capitol, not once but twice, (once on their own time), fought with a committee chairperson who runs his committee in the way of old time back room politicians and now got their idea to the floor of the entire Maine Legislature.

Although most of the state's other media attended both hearings, The Bangor Daily News never even bothered to send a reporter and yet they made the statements that they made. Their comments were not even in an editorial form, but in a news story. The Bangor Daily News should close up shop and relocate to Albania or Libya where they could try to write about civics and democracy.

The students of Noble Junior High School should be commended and applauded for a job well done.

This story appeared in the May 1997 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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