The school held its traditional presidential election debate in front of the student body Oct. 27. Three students impersonated Trump, Clinton and Gary Johnson.
The student “candidates” from the political action club — each along with a campaign team — prepped for about a month, learning everything about the presidential hopefuls from the issues to their mannerisms.
The first debate was presented to the upper school, while the second debate was done in a town-hall style with the lower school.
Minna Ziskind, a history teacher at Barrack, led the students in their preparation.
She said some of the students were nervous but handled the questions well and stayed true to the candidates.
“I’m proud of them for attacking each other, but it didn’t get out of hand, and I’m also very proud that the students [in the audience] showed respect,” she added.
She said their goal was to show more civic discourse and respect than what they’ve seen on TV recently. The kids even made the decision that each candidate would be referred to by last name to show respect.
“No Donalds and Hillarys — they wanted this to have a more formal tone,” she said.
The students knew the issues and topics in advance of the debates but not the questions, and were allowed a page of notes and talking points onstage.
It was a team effort to get all the research of the candidates, but they also had to learn about their opponents.
“We decided to have Gov. Johnson even though he wasn’t on the national debate because he is actually polling very high in a lot of interest among younger voters,” Ziskind said. “He also is on the Pennsylvania ballot, so if students actually have the opportunity to vote for him then we wanted them to hear what his stances are on issues.”
Political music played as the student body filled the auditorium. Backstage, predebate pandemonium was controlled chaos.
Sharon Levin, head of school, loaned some of her Democratic National Convention memorabilia — like Clinton banners and signs — to decorate the auditorium and podiums.
There were some muffled cheers and boos, but mainly laughs at the first sight of the brightly tinted wigs onstage.
The questions touched on issues relevant to the students, like how candidates will empower millennials and younger voters; how they will account for more jobs; how they stand on Israel and the Iran deal; how abortion will be dealt with; how they’ll approach terrorism in the United States; and how they’ll deal with illegal immigration.
The students spoke civilly and didn’t interrupt one another or go over their time limits. It was definitely more civil than the actual debates. The candidates even shook hands at the end.
Ari Miller, 15, portrayed Clinton, complete with a navy pantsuit and blonde wig.
The 10th-grader said she supports some of Clinton’s policies but not all.
“This isn’t about whose policies I support. It’s about portraying Hillary Clinton for the rest of the student body,” she said. “I hope that everyone who sees the debates on television and sees kind of what a mess they are see what a debate is supposed to look like and what are the policies we have and what this will mean for the future of our country.”
Miller embodied Clinton, speaking swiftly and calmly, but when it came to the visual and audible nuances of the real candidates, Alex Tompakov, 15, stole the show.
Tompakov, also in the 10th grade, wore an orange wig, bright red tie and displayed Trump’s signature thumbs-up and pouty lips.
During the debate, Tompakov included popular viral Trump quotes, stirring reaction from the audience with lines like, “I’m a winner,” and “You can fact-check me on this,” as well as his quote about abortion and “ripping it out of the womb.”
Banter aside, Tompakov does support the candidate.
“It is more about the policies because it’s about what is going to make our country great again. He has the plans and he has the experience to do these things, unlike Hillary who has had experience and has done nothing to help our country,” he said.
Tompakov said preparing for the debate was hard work.
“I didn’t realize how hard it is and how effortless it looks on TV,” he said. “All the little things — not just looking like them but speaking like them, having their word choices and different things, and just having this knowledge in the back of their heads wasn’t as easy as they make it look.”
“I learned how difficult it is to debate and how difficult it is to restrain yourself from speaking out of turn and how difficult it is to defend a position no matter what,” Miller added.
When it came to portraying Johnson, 17-year-old Simon Gordon had a more difficult time.
“One of the hardest parts about doing this was getting over my disagreement with all [Johnson’s] policies and basically trying to present them as very optimistic and positive ways to the rest of the student body,” he said.
Ziskind said many 12th-graders are voting in this election, so it’s important that they are aware and active on the political spectrum.
“The goal overall is for people to feel engaged by the political process,” she said. “Part of what I would like to have happen is have kids feel less cynical about the process, which is very hard in this campaign season — there’s so much cynicism. But to feel like they can be part of the process — that’s what democracy’s about. I want them to feel informed. I want them to know the process of making an informed decision.”
But for those who will have to wait until 2020, they can still get involved now.
Barrack will be holding its own election based on these debates, and the results will be announced Nov. 7.
“I know some of the underclassmen are already looking ahead to 2020 — ‘How old am I going to be? Can I be a part of this?’” Ziskind continued. “It’s a wonderful tradition that we have at this school because political engagement and political activism has always been a big part of who we are.”
Contact: [email protected]; 215-832-0737