I’ve received a lot of speaking invitations over the years. But this one stood out.

“We strive to prepare our fellow students to think critically about the ways in which they, as eventual leaders themselves, can contribute to the future of our democracy,” Blythe Thompson, a high school senior at Waynflete in Portland, wrote to me in an email several weeks ago. “Currently, the Perspective Project is exploring the topic of misinformation in wake of the 2020 presidential election and COVID-19 pandemic; we intend to address how we, navigating the complexities of such tumultuous times, can separate truth from falsehood – whether deliberate or inadvertent.”

She continued, “Your perspective and commitment to a more informed state and nation will aid our community significantly in understanding the fourth estate’s instrumental role in the continuation of our democracy. We hope you will consider joining us!”

Bright, motivated high school kids with lots of questions. It doesn’t get any better than that.

Extracurricular activities in high school can mean a lot of things: sports of every stripe and season, student government, science club, chess team, the list goes on. But The Perspective Project at Waynflete, founded two years ago by students as they attempted to make sense of the dizzying world around them, is more than just a diversion from the humdrum of everyday school life.

It’s a model for civic engagement.

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It all started in the fall of 2020 when a small group of Waynflete Upper School students found themselves awash in social currents ranging from COVID-19 to the protests over the murder of George Floyd, from a presidential election like none other in history to the ever-encroaching threats of climate change.

In short, they had tons of questions. Not the kind that can be easily Googled, but probing queries that are best answered by real adults with real experience. Adults who, the kids hoped, might be willing to share their perspectives via one-hour Zoom chats on politics, race, international relations, history, journalism…

“Part of it is informative – just getting a better sense of what’s happening in today’s world and what we can do as students to remedy it,” Thompson, who’s chairing the project this year, told me in an interview last week.

At the same time, she added, “as we go out into the world and we’re voting and interacting with these different things, the better we can understand what’s happening, I think that makes all the difference.”

Since the kickoff in September of 2020, the 14-member group has held 20 sessions and counting.

They’ve talked politics with Sen. Angus King and former Secretary of Defense and Maine Sen. William Cohen. They’ve examined the U.S. racial history and the importance of oral storytelling with James French, inaugural chair of the Montpelier Descendants Committee. They’ve discussed U.S.-Iran relations with Dr. John Ghazvinian, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Middle East Center, and Africa and the Caribbean with Pamela A. White, former U.S. ambassador to Haiti and Gambia.

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Multi-guest panel discussions have centered on the role of the LGBTQ+ community in Maine policy and politics, the challenges posed by climate change here in Maine and beyond, and the impact of microaggressions on students of color in Greater Portland schools – including whether “microaggression” is in itself “too belittling a term for such a big issue.”

They spent an evening with Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, to talk about the pandemic and the dangers of misinformation. Maulian Dana, tribal ambassador for the Penobscot Nation, joined them last November to share her thoughts on Thanksgiving and how she passes Penobscot history and culture on to her adolescent daughters. They dove into civil rights with John C. Yang, president and executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice.

Last week, it was my honor to join them. Drawing from a long list of questions researched and compiled in advance by the entire group, moderators Yenenesh Wilson and Bryan Stark-Chessa, both juniors, kept me hopping for the entire hour.

We talked about amplifying the voices of people who might otherwise go unheard, about the role journalism can play as a force for good, about the need to critically evaluate information before digesting it and passing it on, about the danger of letting our “confirmation biases” limit our exposure to points of view with which we might disagree.

They asked what my best piece of journalistic advice would be. My response: “X-ray the dog.”

It comes, I explained, from a long-ago story at another New England newspaper about a beloved dog that went missing and, years and hundreds of miles later, reappeared at the family’s doorstep. A skeptical editor, upon hearing that the dog had once undergone orthopedic surgery before it vanished, said the story would run  on one condition – the family must agree to have to dog x-rayed to confirm the long-ago surgery.

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Long story short, the procedure confirmed the editor’s suspicions. Wrong dog.

“So, in this age of misinformation, X-ray the dog!” I told them. “That’s my advice.”

It wasn’t until later that I learned our audience was larger than I thought. Before each session, the students prepare an electronic flier promoting the event and pass it on to John Holdridge, their faculty adviser at Waynflete. He then sends it out to fellow high school educators all over Maine, who then recruit their students and community members to tune in.

Holdridge, who directs Waynflete’s Third Thought Initiatives for Civic Engagement, told me he’s continually impressed by the students’ skill in planning and executing the Perspective Project sessions, some of which have drawn upwards of 100 viewers.

“It’s the real deal,” he said. “They’re doing it about as well as any adults that I know. Perhaps even better.”

Starting with those invitations. It turns out Dr. Shah was as impressed with his, co-signed by Thompson and project Vice Chair Maren Cooper, as I was with mine.

“My immediate reaction was this letter is the model of what an invitation letter should be,” Shah said at the beginning of his session in January. “It is clear. It is concise. It makes a compelling case why I should join all of you. And I forwarded it to my team and said, ‘These are the types of students I’d like to be hanging out with.’”

Project leader Thompson, who will attend Bowdoin College in the fall, said the whole experience demonstrates “the power of a single email.”

That and the power of young minds.


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