WASHINGTON – Gretchen Mohr has never earned a paycheck, but she knows enough to get worked up about what teachers make. So she wrote to President Bush.
“We couldn’t live without them,” she wrote. Teachers are “paid like dirt. It’s disgraceful.”
Strong words from a 10-year-old, but this one had done some homework.
“I saw an article, and it had numbers on how much money each job makes,” said the fifth-grader at Alan Shepard Elementary in Long Grove, Iowa. “A tattoo artist made more than a teacher! I just think he should raise their pay a little.”
Nearly 4,000 students from every state and the District of Columbia have written Bush to express their hopes and concerns about the country. Their notes have been assembled in what organizers are calling the longest letter in the world. It will be unspooled across a half-mile of the National Mall on Thursday.
Handwritten by students who were in the third grade or fourth grade last spring, the letters address issues that are timely, touching and, sometimes, troubling.
Armonte Butler of Washington, D.C., asked Bush to stop drug abuse.
“I have people in my neighborhood, a lot of them, in my apartment building, and it’s like, we can smell it in the hallways,” Armonte said in an interview. The 10-year-old asked for more money for his school and neighborhood. He figured $10,000 would do it.
Lisa Castore of Cranston, R.I., wrote that she wants professional football and baseball leagues for women. She would like better security across the country. “I would like to know, how safe are we really?” her letter says. It also pleads for cleaner air and water.
“Sometimes when I’m walking down the street, I smell really bad smells, and that’s really gross,” the 10-year-old student at Oak Lawn School said in an interview. “I’m pretty sure that’s considered a form of pollution.”
What can Bush do about that?
“He’s probably the most powerful man in America,” she said. “If he hears about it, he can do something about it.”
One school in every state and in the capital participated in the letter-writing project, sponsored by Pilot Pen Corp. of America.
The children picked their own topics, which included oil spills, taxes, rain forests, parking spots for the disabled, diabetes and smoking.
“We get to see that they’re not always worried about Barbies and playing tag. They have serious concerns,” said Curt Dudley-Marling, chairman of the elementary education section of the National Council of Teachers of English, which has helped with the project.
“Through writing, they can tell us how they see the world, and that’s important,” he said.
Colorful copies of the students’ letters have been bound into a scroll that will be unfurled on the Mall. The originals will be sent to White House officials, who have not yet seen the letters but have been invited to attend Thursday’s unveiling.
Ashley Attaway, 10, of Anderson, S.C., asked Bush: “Please, if you don’t mind, when is the war going to end?”
The students wrote their letters months before Hurricane Katrina. But Timmie Bowie, a 9-year-old at Gate City Elementary in Pocatello, Idaho, already had encouraged Bush to set an example by aiding those in desperate need.
“It feels good to help,” she wrote. “You probably already do this, but can you help others see how important it is to help?”
At least one student offered a reminder that a child’s curiosity can lead anywhere.
“Who chooses your clothes every day?” wrote Nathan Ambrose, a 9-year-old who attends Homeland Park Elementary with Ashley Attaway. “I don’t think the Secret Service does, and I think you may do it yourself. You always look nice.”