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Each winter, kids from throughout

Kids on the Hill

"This blazer was really hard to find," she says. "I had to go to Danville to get it." Fourteen-year-old Beth Hairston's big brown eyes gleam happily as her small brown hands trace along the lapels of the blazer — her blazer — the navy blue uniform of a Virginia House of Delegates page. It is a perfect blazer. She gives the lapels little pinching tugs to remind herself it is real, that her dream is real, and that she is still here, in Richmond, on the second floor of the General Assembly Building, in the office through which more than 3,000 bills and resolutions will begin and end their paper lives. To remind herself that during what is left of the nine weeks her dream is to last, she will touch them all. The notion sends shivers of awe and delight and dread through the little girl from the little town of Bassett, and in a moment she says: "If I mess up on one bill it can really hurt the process." Yes; of course: The Process. And yet, the 72 other House and Senate pages and messengers will tell you, Hairston has one of the least enviable jobs here: lots of hard, steady work enrolling and keeping track of the bills; little contact with her peers, even less chance to goof off during the day; and almost no time among the august personages of The Process itself. Beth Hairston knows these things, and she remains as content as a body can be. Maybe she won't get to go out and throw snowballs with her fellows this afternoon. Maybe she won't save the day by delivering that critical message or document in the nick of time. Maybe she won't be there when the committee chairman humorously polls the pages on hand for their opinions on a piece of proposed legislation. Maybe she won't stuff her perfect blazer's pockets with tips from delivering lunches to members on the floor. Still, after being denied acceptance last year, she is here now, smiling, one of the chosen few. She woke up this morning as instantly and happily awake as any of them, and was among the first to climb through the snow, three blocks uphill, from the hotel on Cary Street to the office on Capitol Square, past the stately temple at the center of their lives. It's more important than I thought it would be," says Chad Logan, 15, a Senate messenger from Woodstock. "I thought we were just here to make an impression."[image-1]Photo by Chad HuntAlexxis Hutchinson, 14, of Chesapeake; and Mike Smith, 14, of Abingdon, wait their turns for the dreaded "collating duty" in the House page room. They do make an impression. In their blazer-and-slacks, blazer-and-skirt outfits, at first glance they look like preppy cherubs flitting here and there, alone and in clusters, strikingly uniform and small among the suit-clad heroes of the day. They bring smiles from senators and secretaries alike, and cameras to the eyes of tourists, but it is their usefulness for which they are most esteemed. "We could not run this place without them," says Virginia Habansky, assistant clerk of the House of Delegates. "They're very beneficial. They're very eager; they're fast." The temporary nature of the work — nine weeks, Jan. 10 to March 10 — and the exposure to the legislative process it provides makes the program a win-win. "I would not want to be here without them," says Gwen Bailey, assistant clerk of the Senate. "They are the legs of the General Assembly," serving seven buildings, 11 senators, 40 delegates and untold cadres of support staff. "These kids are up and down the stairs. They really do a good job," says Sam Snyder, a legislative assistant. Another, George Lyle, says, "I use 'em all the time to communicate with my delegate on the floor. Sometimes you can't get a page, they're so busy." Members of the General Assembly use laptops and e-mail now, too, but there are still plenty of things that have to be signed or hand-delivered, such as faxes and books, so there is far from any threat to the program from technology. And as legislators would rather talk than eat — their annual session has not been curtailed in modern memory, and the General Assembly barely batted an eye at last week's blizzard — there will always be lunches to deliver to them on the House and Senate floors. Pages fit the bill nicely. ("They know to go right to the ones who tip the biggest first," a source in the know says. And according to an informal survey, Democrats are the big spenders, after all.) Floor duty is exciting, and nothing is more exciting than a big tip: While pages get free lodging at the Omni Hotel, $130 a week in salary and $150 a week in food and expense money, they have a teen-age way of spending it. "I am not working on the floor, so I am, like, draining money," says Mike Smith, 14, a House page from Abingdon. What's a page? What's a messenger? What are these kids doing here, in many cases a full day's drive from home, missing months of school, camped out at the Omni?[image-2]Photo by Chad HuntBeth Hairston in the House bill enrolling office at the General Assembly building. "I love the atmosphere of being around where the bills are made," she says. The page and messenger programs have been going as long as anyone can remember, and, Bailey says proudly, are considered among the best in the nation: "We have photographs back to the 1800s." Each session there are about 40 House pages, ages 13 and 14, and 30 Senate pages and messengers, ages 13 to 15. (As the distinctions between pages and messengers are subtle and not, for the purposes of this story, critical, when referred to as a group they shall henceforth be called pages.) Two chaperones oversee them at the hotel, and there are two head pages, who have been chosen to return for a second year, to help guide and monitor the new charges. They are selected through a variety of application, appointment and election processes that involve their representatives, schools, parents and the House and Senate clerks' offices. The bottom line is that there is little apparent nepotism, cronyism or, most years, partisanship in their selection: Pages must have good grades and good references, and they represent vastly different communities throughout Virginia. "They're here to work," Habansky says. "They get paid; they get expense money. They're here to do a job — they're employees." The kids know it. Sun Cho, 14, a Senate page from Springfield, says she didn't realize until now "how long 8:30 to 5 really is." "The days go by slowly, but the weeks go by quickly," she says. And while there is no overstating their utility, for the General Assembly as a whole there is the not-inconsiderable cherub effect as well. "They make you forget, I guess, some of the more serious things," says Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Tommy Gilman. "They lighten things up." Del. Ward Armstrong ( D-Henry County) agrees. "I do think [their presence] gives you perspective," he says. "They don't know, really, the reason for the differences between the parties down here, and that there are divisions. That's probably something the delegates and senators could learn from." What the pages learn, of course, is the most important part of the program. "It's not only learning how the process works but it's participating in the process," Bailey, the senate assistant clerk, says. "It turns them on to government and service — public service." Logan, the Senate messenger from Woodstock, agrees. "I think we really get the sense that we're working for the government, the people," he says. Alexxis Hutchinson, 14, a House page from Chesapeake, says she is most impressed by the tenacity of the representatives in "how they get the bills passed. I didn't know they had to go through all of this. It's a lot of processes." Hairston, the House page from Bassett, says she also learns the legislators are flesh and blood, like her. "You discover that the delegates, they like to have fun, too," she says. "Sometimes they're just crazy. You think they would be all serious but they're just people." She is still handling those lapels. "I love the atmosphere of being around where the laws are made," she adds. "I just love the atmosphere. I think there's a magic. When you go up in the chamber there's a magic in the air, and you know that what's happening right up there in that room is affecting you." Jump to Part 1, 2,Continue to Part 2

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