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Thursday, May 26, 2005 04:43 pm

Equal time

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Before I moved to Illinois, I’d never heard of Casimir Pulaski. I’ve recently learned that he was a Revolutionary War hero, the “father of the American cavalry,” and that he died at age 32 of gangrene after being shot in the leg during battle.

Of course, you probably already know all that, because your children get to play hooky on Casimir Pulaski Day.

But I had heard of Jane Addams. I knew that she founded Hull House and became the “mother of modern social work.” She got laws passed setting safety standards for factories, prohibiting child labor, and establishing a juvenile-court system. She helped start the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the settlement-house movement, and several international peace organizations. She was the first American woman ever to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

Addams was born and raised in Illinois. Pulaski, on the other hand, never set foot in the Midwest. Yet, for some reason, Illinois — unlike any other state — has deemed Pulaski worthy of an official state holiday.

Addams doesn’t get that kind of respect. The father of the cavalry apparently trumps the mother of social work, right in her own homeland.

A group of eighth-graders in the southern-Illinois town of Dongola is working to remedy this imparity. They have started a petition drive seeking to make Dec. 10 Jane Addams Day — and, believe it or not, they just may succeed.

“This project has just gone way beyond what I ever imagined,” says teacher Cindy Vines.

It started last summer when Vines attended a workshop sponsored by the Center for Civic Education. There she learned about Project Citizen, a program designed to inspire middle-schoolers to become active participants in government.

It’s a five-step process that begins with having kids identify a problem in their town. Next, they gather information and possible solutions, then propose a new public policy and an action plan.

Vines’ class quickly homed in on holidays and found that there was no state holiday honoring any woman. They identified that disparity as the problem and Addams as the solution.

Their research has been compiled into a series of display boards, now on view at the state Capitol along with other schools’ Project Citizen efforts. The Dongola kids have a 2-inch-thick binder with their boards simply documenting the phone calls that they made trying in vain to determine the price tag of a state holiday.

“Nobody knows what it costs,” Vines says.

Earlier this month, on one of the hottest days of the year, the kids dressed up in their nicest khakis and rode school buses to Springfield to participate in Youth in Democracy day. They arrived to find that no other students had made posters or banners, and they felt uncomfortable waving their Jane Addams signs during the outdoor rally.

“I was disappointed,” Vines says, “but, hey, we went about our business. I’m not about to apologize for my students.”

The kids had designed trifold brochures, and Vines took them into the Capitol and told them to hand the leaflets out to anybody who looked important. “They were little politickers,” she says.

They attracted the attention of Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn’s staff, and this week the students traveled to Chicago to meet with him. They made the trip by train from Dongola to Chicago and back in 24 hours — leaving at 2 a.m. Monday and arriving home at 2 a.m. Tuesday.

While in Chicago, the kids visited the Shedd Aquarium and Navy Pier and, of course, toured Hull House, where they discovered even more information about Addams, including her role in establishing the first public playgrounds.

“Playgrounds are something we take for granted,” Vines says. “We didn’t realize they were once accessible only to the rich.”

Their meeting with Quinn was productive, but he stopped short of endorsing their idea for an official holiday, recommending instead a state “commemorative day” — exactly what Vines was afraid of.

“We have dozens of commemorative days. Do you know of any?” she asks. “That’s why I don’t want it! All it means is, you think you got rid of me. That’s not going to do it.”

After all, Pulaski — the war hero whose only connection to Illinois is the large population of Polish people in Chicago — has a real holiday.

“There are more Polish people living in Chicago than there are in Poland,” Vines says. “But guess what? There are more women than there are Poles.”

Quinn’s communications director, Claude Walker, says that everything depends on the Dongola kids’ petition drive. If the petition garners enough signatures to get a holiday, so be it.

“The will of the people will be the law of the land,” he says.

Anyone wanting a copy of the Jane Addams

state-holiday petition may contact Vines at cjvines@earthlink.net.

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