As our airplane descended at Reagan International, I was so excited I could hardly stay in my seat. My little window revealed buildings that I saw every day on CNN. I was anxious to see them up close.
When we were finally allowed off the plane, the humidity hit like a ton of bricks. The coastal air seemed to weigh much more than the chilly mountain stuff I was used to. As we gathered our luggage and piled into the ritziest bus I've ever seen, we saw something we'd never run into before. "Look! It's a three-story McDonald's!"
It was hard to sleep for the excitement. After all, the next day we were to get up and compete in front of heaven only knows who. When competition time came, we acquitted ourselves well. Everyone was champing at the bit to get out into the city to see the sights, and so the time passed quickly.
Our first stop was the Smithsonian complex. I thought we were going to a museum. We were headed to a small town. There must have been 15 buildings, chock-full with everything from Yuri Gagarin's space suit to original Monets to the Hope diamond. I felt that there wasn't enough time in the world to see everything I'd like to, let alone every artifact.
With sporadic bursts of competition interspersed, we traveled to a seemingly endless array of monuments to great leaders, soldiers, presidents and anyone who looked good in concrete. It began to seem as though every bit of history that happened in the country was commemorated in stone in the nation's capital. Despite their numbers, every monument was highly individual and fascinating. The brisk military sentiment at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was nothing like the stately tribute to Thomas Jefferson or the tactile, emotionally charged atmosphere at the Vietnam Wall.
Government education above and beyond our constitutional competition also abounded. Both of our senators were kind enough to visit with us in their offices about everything from how their career in politics got its start to their position on the McCain-Feingold bill and energy deregulation. Although, unfortunately, we didn't see the Supreme Court in session, we were allowed a tour of the building. It is the most imposing structure I've ever been in, all white marble and huge columns and busts of illustrious justices. You couldn't help but lower your voice and gaze around in awe and respect.
A limited number of our team members were allowed a VIP trip to the White House where they visited the Oval Office, West Wing and even the press room where the president or his spokesperson gives public commentary. A tour of the sprawling Capitol building left us all with a new bit of knowledge. We had been given visitors' gallery passes by our senators. When we popped by the gallery to watch some debate, we found a single senator giving a speech while a secretary took down his words.
When we asked our teacher where the other 99 were, he said that the Senate is seldom found all in one place. The sound bytes you see on the news with one senator in them have the whole occupancy on the chambers in them. There's little to no floor debate; most discussion takes place in committee. After all, our teacher noted, senators are very informed and it's highly unlikely that argumentation would change even a single vote. (I was a bit disillusioned. That's not what I think of as the democratic process.)
Our five days drew rapidly to a close. Though our team didn't take any national awards, we'd soaked up about as much of Washington as we could and learned a great deal about the Constitution in the process. It was the most worthwhile educational experience of my life. I'm only sorry that I had to leave so soon.
Kate Tiskus is a Polson High School junior and news and graphics editor of the school's newspaper, The Salishian.