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Mt. Spokane High student places at nationals

Thu., Aug. 11, 2011, midnight

Portrayal of famous suffragette won state contest

For some teens history is either a class they have to pass or a list of recently visited websites. For Mt. Spokane High School’s Richelle McDermott history has become a passion.

In May, McDermott took first place at the National History Day state contest. “I was very jazzed!” said Mt. Spokane history teacher Luke Thomas. “I’ve been teaching this for eight years, and this is the first student I’ve had place.”

National History Day began in 1974, and the first contest was held in 1980. The program provides a way for students across the nation to learn about historical ideas, people and events. Each year, NHD introduces a new theme. Students choose their topic, conduct extensive research, and present their work in one of five ways: original papers, websites, exhibits, performances or documentaries.

NHD also offers materials and workshops for teachers. “I kind of informally balance the curriculum with what I teach in world history,” Thomas said. “But Richelle did all of the research independently. She had very little background or familiarity with National History – this was her first foray into it.”

When McDermott heard about the contest in class, she immediately decided to participate. “I love history, and this was something different to do with my time,” she said.

Not that she has much time to spare. The busy 17-year-old serves on the Chase Youth Commission, is a senior master sergeant in the Civil Air Patrol and is vice president of her school’s French club and National Honor Society. And she’s in the after-school drama club.

In fact, her participation in drama helped fuel her research project. McDermott delved into the archives at the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture and discovered the letters of political activist and suffragette May Arkwright Hutton – 500 of them. “I read all of them,” McDermott said. Then she chuckled. “It’s not something you want to do again!”

While reading the letters she learned of the contentious relationship between Hutton and fellow suffragette Emma Smith DeVoe. McDermott felt the women’s dialogue would lend itself well to the NHD theme of debate and diplomacy. She chose to portray Hutton in a 10-minute dramatic performance.

“The real story was the battle between East Side and West Side suffragettes,” McDermott said. Hutton became first vice-president of the Washington Equal Suffrage Association, of which Seattle-based DeVoe was president.

McDermott said that’s when the story got interesting. “They had a personality conflict. DeVoe was more of a feminist – brutal when it came to suffrage tactics, but she was a much more polite person. May was blunt, and she wanted to work within the existing political groups to bring about women’s rights.”

Her research consumed at least 150 hours, and when McDermott finished, she distilled all of that information into a 10-minute performance that wowed the judges at the state competition. Her 35-page annotated bibliography impressed them, too. She laughed. “They were amazed by that.”

Even so, McDermott didn’t expect to finish so well. “I was shocked when I won,” McDermott said. “I was crying – it was so exciting!”

Thomas said, “She put so much work into this, it was nice to see her rewarded this way.”

Her first-place finish earned her the right to compete at nationals in Washington, D.C. On June 11, McDermott was one of 2,700 students to descend on the capitol. The generous support of Mt. Spokane’s academic booster club helped make her trip possible.

From June 11 through 16, she got to hang out with history buffs from across the nation. “It was the best experience of my life!” she said.

The competition was broadcast live on the History Channel. McDermott placed third in her flight of individual performances for an overall ranking somewhere between 13th and 18th. School officials said they couldn’t find any other first-time competitors among the finalists.

“I was proud to be Mr. Thomas’ first student to win state and go on to nationals,” she said.

But McDermott is already preparing for next year’s contest. “I’m excited to go back next year,” she said. “I’m addicted now!”

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