Catherine Wolfe is safely home after four months in what many Americans consider one of the most dysfunctional places in the nation.
Wolfe, 17, a new senior at Wilson High School, spent the spring as one of 30 pages in the United States Senate.
While there, she impressed Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid with her math prowess and got kidded by Minnesota senator and one-time comedian Al Franken. She fetched water, delivered documents, sat through debates and tributes and learned the partisan secrets of the Republicans’ candy desk and the Democrats’ candy drawer. Republicans have better chocolate.
Polls show most Americans disapprove of how national legislators are doing their jobs, but Wolfe came away with respect for the people and the process.
“We talk about how government is so slow and nothing ever gets done,” she said. “That’s kind of the point. If our government was up to the whims of the majority, our country would change so fast there would be no stability. Our government is working even though they have a 12 percent approval.”
She sees the contention on the news, and she’s seen the people on the job.
“They’re actually really good friends,” she said. “John Kerry and John McCain are the best of friends. They’re always talking about their kids and baseball. The government is just made up of people. We tend to put them on this pedestal, but they talk about the baseball game last night, how their kid just learned to walk or just graduated, or how their husband or wife cooked them a delicious dinner the night before. A lot of the women exchange recipes.”
Wolfe worked for three years to earn that perspective.
At 14, she went to Olympia as a page for state Sen. Debbie Regala, came home and told her mom, Carol Wolfe, that she intended to earn a place in the Federal Page Program.
She earned the grades - a 3.98 average at Wilson High School. And every time she gets near an Advanced Placement math test, she aces it. Her volunteering efforts include the Hilltop Scholars and Paint Tacoma-Pierce Beautiful.
The only one who’s ever pushed Catherine is Catherine, said her mom. No one else in the family would have thought of building a bookshelf out of 100 index cards, just to see how many volumes it could hold. The answer: the complete Harry Potter saga, 18 paperbacks and two textbooks.
“I was all prepared to be parenting against sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll,” Carol Wolfe said. “I wasn’t prepared for ‘We need more duct tape.’”
She’s delighted that her daughter describes her heart’s desire as “working for the betterment of society, working to solve our mutual problems.”
That attitude earned Catherine letters of recommendation and a place in the page program through Sen. Patty Murray’s office.
In it, 30 students ages 16 and 17 serve for four months. There are fall pages, spring pages and summer pages who see the Senate from the carpeted steps around the desks of the presiding officer, parliamentarian and sergeant at arms.
As U.S. government employees, they are expected to meet high academic and personal standards, said Catherine, who earned $9,175 before taxes, room and board and uniform costs.
After untoward shenanigans in the House of Representatives, the government shut down that page program and set up a dormitory and high school for the senate pages. In Webster Hall, they were up at 5 a.m., in class by 6:15 a.m., then on to the Senate floor readying senators’ desks.
Their four-person rooms had to pass a daily inspection.
“The resident advisers were very exacting,” Catherine said. “They would crawl underneath our desks to find tiny shards of paper.”
School was rigorous, the work long and the politics of bipartisan dorm life stressful, Catherine said, but the experience was beyond her expectations. She sees a future with politics, but not in it.
“I’d really like to go into engineering, or possibly architecture,” she said. “When I saw what Hurricane Katrina did, I thought about how I want to engineer and build structures that will hold up and help people.”
She intends her buildings to be better, stronger and lasting, like the government she so recently served.