Sunday, May 1, 2011

Senate Page Memories

I had to write a folklore research paper for English, so I decided to write interview some of the other pages and write about my experience as a Senate Page.  People ask me about it quite a bit so this is a more detailed explanation than I normally give.  I hope you enjoy it.

Each year high school juniors across the country apply through their senators’ offices to become a Page in the United States Senate.  According to Mildred Amer, a specialist in American Government from the Congressional Research Service, Pages have been serving in the Senate for over 150 years.  Daniel Webster appointed the first Senate Page in 1829.  His connection with the beginning of the Page program has led to the naming of the Senate Page dormitory, Webster Hall, in his honor.  Senate Pages mainly act as messengers.  They carry documents throughout the capital.  Additionally, they prepare the Senate chambers each day, prepare the Senators’ desks, assist in the chambers and cloakroom, and during sessions sit on the rostrum where they may be summoned for assistance by the senators (1).  Pages are considered to be non-partisan employees of the Senate, but they work for the party of the Senator that appointed them.  Many former pages have become some of the most prominent figures in our country.  According to journalist Michelle Davis, despite calls to close the page program due to recent scandals including members of the House of Representatives and House Pages, the program is being protected by the many prominent business and political leaders that served as pages (23).
Serving as a United States Senate Page is a once in a lifetime opportunity.  It is an experience that can truly change lives.  Serving as a Page allows an up close look at how our government works.  The Page program teaches discipline, respect, time management, honor, and professionalism.  Beyond the official duties and experiences lies the folklore that is created by each class of pages.  Folklore consists of our unique experiences we shared as a group. Bill Ivey of Vanderbilt University points out that folklore is even important to policy makers like the Senators we served:

The key elements that define [folklore]-sound theory grounded in the distinctive expressive practices of diverse communities, an antimodern and persistently relevant moral stance, and a wealth of actionable knowledge-make folklore especially valuable to policy leaders who every day must engage challenges defined by culture, religion, ethnicity, ceremony, and traditional practice in science, medicine, welfare, labor, diplomacy, and trade. (6)

Pages spend every hour of every day together.  When not working together, Pages live together, hang out together, and take field trips together on the weekends.  Each class of Pages is unique and therefore has a unique experience serving as Senate Pages.  I was a part of the summer 2009 class.  My class is made up of a diverse group of people from across the country.  We all came from different ethnic, cultural, and religious backgrounds.  Despite our differences we came together and bonded as friends.  The Summer 2009 Senate Page class is connected through our experience of working together, our experience of living together, and our special experiences that defined our group.

Working in the Senate
Working on the Senate floor is demanding and tedious work that leads to pages looking for ways to lighten the atmosphere.  There are a lot of rules and procedures we have to follow as Pages.  Everything we did had to be done a certain way, and if something wasn’t done exactly right there were serious consequences.  Those rules became monotonous and some of the Pages looked for fun in breaking the rules.  Lauren Cook of Louisiana said, “my memories are of us bonding together by trying to escape all the rules and obnoxious standards we had to meet.”  While sitting on the rostrum you had to sit still and be attentive because you were being watched by the Senators and a national television audience.  Lauren and her cousin Connor were sitting next to each other on the rostrum during work one day.  To break up the monotony she decided to punch him repeatedly during one of Senator Menendez’s speeches.  They were caught by a Page supervisor, and as a punishment, both of them were required to memorize and recite every Senator that had served from Delaware.  Will Stemberg of Massachusetts remembers, “one afternoon, in the midst of a quorum call, almost the entire Page class decided to sneak into the private senators’ bathroom.”  A custodian caught the group of pages and reported them to the cloakroom staff.  Although they were yelled at by many different people, Will is still proud to say he has urinated in the same place as many of America’s greatest leaders.  One of the legends of the Senate is that of the Senate baths.  It is rumored that hidden somewhere in the capitol are bathtubs that the early Senators would use during a long day on the Senate floor.  The Pages were told that they didn’t exist, but Jake Hinch of Oklahoma and I remember when we finally convinced our supervisor to tell us the truth.  Our supervisor, Evelyn Poole agreed to take us to the baths that she discovered while she was a page.  During a break we snuck to the basement and into a maintenance room.  Finally, we wound our way to real life marble bathtubs in the capitol.  We were lucky we didn’t get caught.  Pages are teenagers that are given very adult responsibilities.  They are expected to act like adults, but after all they are still teenagers.  It is hard to expect seventeen-year-olds to act like complete adults.  Finding mischief in the capitol was our way of acting like teenagers and having some fun.
            Working on the Senate floor was an amazing yet challenging opportunity.  Ericka Gianotto of Idaho sums it up best when she says, “the greatest part of being a Page was having a literal front row seat on the Senate floor.”  Ericka like all pages remembers the Senators test.  Each Page has to memorize the names and faces of each Senator in their party.  It is definitely a challenge to learn, in the case of the Republican Pages at the time, forty names and face within the first couple days of being there.  She also remembers the first time she took water to one of the Secretaries of the Senate.  It didn’t occur to her to put the water in a glass.  When she took the bottle of water to the Secretary, the Secretary looked up and said, “that’s nice, now why don’t you go put it in a cup?”  Morgan Disanto-Ranney of Virginia remembers Senator Bond scribbling down a few notes at his desk.  He then got up and gave an entire memorized speech.  Morgan collected his notes afterword and found that he had written and memorized his entire speech in only a few minutes before he talked.  One day while I was on the Senate floor, Senator Grassley of Iowa gave a speech about Sur Taxalot and the Debt and Deficit Dragon.  This speech has since become the target of many political comedians and the subject of a viral Auto-Tune the News video.  It is fun to see this clip played because I was sitting right in front of him when he gave this speech.  At the end of our tenure as Pages, like those who came before us, we signed our names in the Pages’ cupboards next to the rostrum.  One of the worst pars of the job as Morgan Disanto-Ranney recalls was the Page Annex.  During the summer are more Pages in the Senate.  We would work in shifts.  While not working, we would spend hours locked in a tiny windowless room in the basement of the capitol.  To pass the time, Pages would read, play games, or sleep.  Ericka Gianotto remembers how excited she was to finally get to sign the cupboard on the last day of work.  Getting to see the Senate so intimately was better than any government class available.  Pages learn from experiencing firsthand the processes of our government and are expected to know the rules and procedures of the Senate.  I learned more about government in those six weeks than I have the rest of my life.  Having such a unique experience instills in the pages just how important the work of the government is.

Living in Webster Hall
Daniel Webster Hall has served as the Senate Page residence since 1993 and within its walls complete strangers from around the country live together while serving as Senate Pages.  Webster Hall therefore, is the location where Page memories and Page bonding take place.  Right before we all arrived in Washington D.C. there was a major H1N1 outbreak across the country.  One of the pages, Daniel Harelson, was infected when he moved into Webster Hall.  He thought he was over the infection when he moved in, but it turns out he wasn’t.  He was never treated for the infection while there, but he infected other pages causing an epidemic in Webster Hall.  Gabriel Lavine of Kentucky remembers that Emily Chen, Elise Mixon, and Ericka Gianotto, and himself were quarantined in Webster Hall for a week.  They were locked in their rooms, given masks, and had to order all of their meals in.  Our dorm proctors were scared to death that they would be infected also.  Ericka Gianotto recalls that an email was sent to everyone in the capitol.  The story was leaked to the press and a Fox News cameraman waited outside all day just to get a shot of the infected Pages.  There is not a cafeteria or any food facilities in Webster Hall.  That means the Pages have to go out to dinner every night after work.  Without a car, the Pages can either stay close by Webster Hall and eat at Union Station or take the Metro to Chinatown.  Lauren Cook’s favorite place was a little restaurant close by called Good Stuff.  Lauren said, “they have the best burgers I have ever eaten.”  When pages found somewhere good to eat it was an exciting experience with so little close to Webster Hall.  Webster Hall is close to the Capitol complex.  Each day we would walk to the Hart Senate Office Building and take the underground subway to the Capitol.  I remember that as pages we felt privileged, especially in comparison to the Summer interns.  Pages not only have access to the Senate floor, a privilege few employees have, but they also ride the Capitol subway and are paid.  Summer interns don’t receive any of those benefits.  Placing thirty complete strangers together in a house with four to a room definitely has its challenges, but spending every waking moment together forced us to get along.  There were definitely some struggles and shared diseases.  Even though we all came from different places and backgrounds, we found common ground and became friends or at least tolerated one another. 
            Webster Hall has many restrictions on pages because of past problems.  Living in Webster Hall is kind of like paying to live in prison.  While serving, Pages can’t have their cell phone, can’t have access to the internet, and can’t leave Webster Hall without getting permission.  Pages must be back by 9:00 PM, the boys and girls must be on separate floors by 11:00 PM, and lights must be out by midnight.  My roommate Jack Schlossberg of New York tells that he snuck his cell phone into Webster Hall and hid it during the day.  I soon after snuck my cell phone in also.  Jack was glad to have his cell phone because without it communication was very limited.  He never did anything bad with it, but felt rebellious anyway.  Living with such strict standards helps the Pages focus on learning as much as possible.  While serving as a Page there is so much to concentrate on and learn, and without distractions it is much easier to work at full capacity.

Defining Experiences 
        Each Page comes away with different experiences or overall feelings about serving as a Page.  Ericka Gianotto recalls how neat it is to be surrounded by such influential and powerful people like the Senators, but also fellow Pages that come from influential families.  There were quite a few in our Page class that come from very well known families in America.  Jack Bouvier Kennedy Schlossberg is the only grandson of JFK.  Eddy Marshall is the grandson of Thurgood Marshall, the first African American Supreme Court Justice.  Jenna Cantor and Maggie Harper are the daughters of Representatives.  Connor Snellings is the son of and Lauren Cook is the niece of Senator Landrieu of Louisiana.  Rose Traubert is from the Hyatt Hotel family.  For most of the pages it was a new experience being surrounded by so many famous people.  Will Stemberg will always remember the craziness of fellow page Zane Sawyer.  Will’s favorite Zane saying is, “I wouldn’t throw rocks at her.”  Will said, “I would make sure to sit close to him at lunch because laughter was virtually guaranteed in his presence.”  Each of us has our own perceptions and even though each of us had the same experience, we each have our own unique perception of our service.  By hearing what others have to say about a shared experience, each person can better appreciate what actually occurred.
While serving as Pages some very important events took place that we witnessed firsthand.  We watched the Judicial hearings on the approval of Judge Sotomayor, A universal healthcare option was argued, and comedian Al Franken was sworn in as a Senator.  Having the opportunity to see these monumental events up close will connect us on a personal level with some major events in the history of our nation.

            Through the shared experience of working as a page, our Page class came together, bonded, and will be connected because of this experience.   Each Page has a different perspective on our shared experience.  Lauren Cook said, “being a page opened my eyes to how big the world is.  I’m from a tiny town in Louisiana, and I was blown away by the amount of power the United States has, but more importantly how influential just one person can be.  It’s important for every citizen to know that they actually can make a difference.”  Morgan Disanto-Ranney was impressed with the fact that we came “from all across the country with different backgrounds, beliefs, and opinions, yet we all came together to form a strong community.  We learned from each other and formed friendships that we will all never forget.”  Ericka Gianotto pointed out that we worked and lived with the same thirty people for six weeks.  “We had to work together and form friendships, otherwise we wouldn’t have lasted,” Ericka stated.  She hasn’t talked to many of her fellow pages over the last two years, but she would still welcome them into her home if they ever visit Idaho.  Being a page is an experience that is hard to explain unless you have been a page.  It gives young people a unique opportunity to live and work in our nation’s Capitol.  On top of that Pages learn about other cultures within our country from each other.
The experience of being a page teaches lessons and gives life experiences that can’t be matched.  We not only learned from working in the Senate, but also from each other.  Each of us came from different places and backgrounds, but we find the Summer 2009 Senate Page class is connected through our experience of working together, our experience of living together, and our special experiences that defined our group.