Representative Ellen Story Visits Fort River
Reporter: Emma Kolchin-Miller
On Friday, April 12th, Representative Ellen Story spoke to Fort River’s sixth grade classes about her job as a legislator. Representative Story, a Democrat, represents Amherst, Pelham and Granby in the Massachusetts House of Representatives. Before she joined the Legislature in 1992, she served on the Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee and as a Town Meeting member.
With the help of sixth grade teacher Timothy Austin, the Fort River Student Council orchestrated Representative Story’s visit. In a class survey, Student Council members found that many students were interested in hearing from a politician. They sent Representative Story an invitation to visit the school, which she accepted.
When Representative Story arrived at Fort River, Student Council members led her to Mr. Austin’s classroom where the sixth graders were preparing for her visit. Representative Story was immediately at ease, and as she observed the students cleaning up their work quietly and efficiently, she joked, “when I was in sixth grade, we couldn’t do that.”
Once everyone was seated and ready, Representative Story gave students some basic information about the Legislature. Rather than simply presenting, she asked them to think about what sorts of laws Massachusetts legislators pass. The students enthusiastically responded with laws regarding speed limits, gas prices, and seat belts, which Representative Story said were excellent examples.
In giving background information about the Massachusetts Legislature, Representative Story did not sugarcoat its shortcomings. “We are mostly white and we are mostly male,” she said solemnly. “Although we [women] are half of the population we are only one fourth of the Legislature.”
Representative Story also addressed the frustrating disagreements that go hand in hand with politics. Because there are innumerable perspectives on every issue, she explained, “the Legislature doesn’t agree on any topic, and it’s hard to get people to change the way they think or the way they do things.”
Despite differences of opinion in the Massachusetts State House, Representative Story held that legislators have a fundamental sense of respect for one another. Indeed, though she differs from her fellow lawmakers on many issues, Representative Story has grown to like them. “I can be friends with some colleagues who disagree with me,” she said.
Representative Story’s ability to calmly interact with her colleagues despite their differences of opinion is an invaluable asset. However, she was not always so rational. According to Representative Story, her reasonableness came with age, so she is glad she ran when she was fifty rather than thirty. “If I had run when I was thirty, I would have been mad all of the time,” she said, “and if you’re mad all the time it doesn’t work.”
One particularly sensitive issue that causes bitter disagreement in the Legislature is gun control. Representative Story carefully explained the weightiness of the issue, especially after the shooting in Newtown Connecticut. “This is a very emotional topic,” she said. Representative Story expressed her belief in gun regulation and emphasized the importance of careful background checks.
Many of the sixth graders agreed with Story that there should be stronger gun regulations. One student said, to laughter and general approval, “they should definitely have background checks to buy a gun because our parents have to get checked to even chaperone a field trip!”
Another issue the students brought up was same-sex marriage, a controversial topic in The United States. Representative Story fully supports freedom of marriage and feels “very strongly that same-sex marriage should be allowed and legal.” She proudly told the students that Massachusetts was the first state in the country to legalize same-sex marriage, to which they applauded. “When you’re twenty-five years old this won’t be an issue anymore,” she predicted.
In addition to her views on current issues, the sixth graders were interested in Representative Story’s family. Representative Story has two sons, Christopher and Timothy, who attended Fort River as children, so she is familiar with the elementary school and its staff. She was particularly excited to see the beloved art teacher, Teri Magner, who is retiring this year. Representative Story excitedly told the class that her office has “a whole wall full of beautiful art” that her children produced in Ms. Magner’s class.
Representative Story also spoke about growing up in Texas when schools were still segregated. “I spent much of my time picketing and standing in line,” she recalled, and reemphasized, “same-sex marriage is a civil rights issue just like the 1960s.”
Evident from her support of same-sex marriage and her past civil rights activism, Representative Story tends to represent the underdog. “One of the things I see as my job is to advocate. I try to advocate for people who don’t have others speaking up for them,” said Representative Story. Being an advocate is “one of the parts of my job I like the best.”
Though the questions were endless, Representative Story finally had to wrap up her visit. The students expressed their satisfaction afterward. “I thought her job and the voting were interesting,” said sixth grader Caleb Ireland. His classmate, Malik Johnson, thought Representative Story “was fun to be around.”
Mr. Austin was also pleased with Representative Story’s visit. “They asked a wide variety of questions, which I thought was fantastic,” he said.
As Representative Story was leaving, I asked her why she accepted the sixth graders’ invitation to visit. Story explained that she always makes time to speak to students. Smiling, she said, “I want them to think, ‘maybe I could do that.’”