NEW YORK — On most days, a class discussion of the electoral college, absentee ballots and the intricacies of tallying presidential votes would be a good way to get junior high schoolers snoozing at their desks.
But the morning after one of the tightest, most dramatic national elections in living memory was not like most days.
Around the country, students pestered teachers for the latest Florida vote counts Wednesday and spent classtime in unusually lively discussions of the mechanics of democracy.
“It’s almost like they couldn’t stay up late enough to watch the end of the World Series,” said James Hayes, principal of the Epiphany School, a Roman Catholic middle school in New York. “They wanted to know who won the game.”
From Vice President Al Gore’s home state of Tennessee to Gov. George W. Bush’s Texas and 2000’s electoral epicenter in Florida, teachers took advantage of the learning opportunity presented by the high-stakes tossup.
With many students — not to mention their parents — confused by a non-result that appeared to change by the hour through election night, the lessons were sorely needed. The possibility that Bush might win the presidency with an electoral vote majority even as Gore captured the popular vote complicated things even further.
“I don’t know why it’s taking so long,” said 13-year-old Micky Thorbecke, a student in Hayes’ history class. “I don’t even really know what’s going on, I just know they have to go to Florida or something, for some reason.”
Complicated as the muddle was, most were riveted.
“Our kids came in today exhilarated, flabbergasted, the whole thing,” said Michele Ballard, an eighth-grade science teacher at Seymour Middle School in Sevier County in the Great Smoky Mountains north of Knoxville, Tenn. “I just think it’s awesome that you’ve got 11- and 12-year-olds going up to 13- and 14-year-olds that are so interested. They have a million questions. They want to know more information and they want to know now.”
Aside from the obvious “Who won?” topic No. 1 was one that’s usually relegated to the driest of civics lessons — the electoral college.
Teachers struggled to explain the idea of electoral votes, and students debated the merits of a system that might let a popular-vote loser take the White House.
“It’s kinda weird,” said Thomas Brown, 13, a student in Hayes’ class. “I think it should be popular vote, because the people really should choose who the president is.”
In a room filled with bookshelves and computers, 11 boys in gray slacks and striped ties peppered their teacher with questions about the state-by-state voting system.
“I have no idea what it is,” Adam Sanchez said. “I’m gonna need to know it soon. In five years, I’m going to need to vote.”
Some had a firmer handle.
“I’ve had students tell me, ’I had to tell my parents how the electoral college works,”’ said Jane Ann Craig, a government teacher at Westlake High School in a suburb of Austin, Texas, not far from the governor’s mansion.
There were other questions too.
“How can you trust the counters?” wondered Guenole Benjamin, 13, referring to the crucial recount of Florida votes.
“Isn’t that kind of sketchy that George Bush’s brother is the governor of Florida?” remarked Joel Collier, a student at Hillsboro High School in Nashville, Tenn.
And what effect did Ralph Nader’s Green Party candidacy have on the outcome?
The presidential race wasn’t the only election to offer lessons in the eccentricities of democracy.
New York students were well-informed about first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton’s Senate victory, and some were puzzled by the Missouri Senate race, won by the late Gov. Mel Carnahan.
“He was elected, even though he’s dead,” Hayes explained.
“So what happens now?” asked a student.
But the day’s most important lesson was far less arcane.
“I’m going to definitely vote when I’m 18,” said Peter Torre, 13, at the Epiphany School. “I always thought that one vote can’t make a difference. But the margin is so close, now we know it can.”
On the Net:
Facts about the Electoral College: http://www.nara.gov/fedreg/elctcoll