"We the People" competitors Nikita Naumowicz, left, and Ross Conroy, of Noble High School in North Berwick.
The Constitution holds tremendous power and so does this competition. Just ask Janice Eldridge. She lives in Maine now, but grew up in West Virginia, where she competed in "We The People" and made it to the nationals.
"It changed my whole life track," she says. "I thought I was going to be a doctor and I was going to go in pre-med, and after we did We The People, I fell in love with it, and here I am many years later."
Eldridge is a social studies teacher at Noble High School in North Berwick, and coach of the school's We The People team.
"It's very rare in the field of social studies that you actually get to go do something. You're studying things that happened. And for this, in front of these really important people, you have to defend the Constitution, and it's hard," she says. "I don't think we really often are able to give our kids challenging questions that are applicable to their lives, and that's exactly what these are."
Her team is competing to go to the nationals. And so is incumbent champion Marshwood High School in neighboring South Berwick. Each team is split into six groups with different areas of constitutional expertise, from historic foundations to modern-day interpretations.
Noble High senior Nikita Naumowicz says this kind of competition is different from the spelling bees she's used to. "It's a lot of practicing writing and writing essays, and more writing for the purpose of speaking, and getting over the whole public speaking aspect" is nerve-wracking, she says.
Her nerves manifest as rapid foot taps as she and her team sit down at a table facing a panel of judges. But Naumowicz dives in to a question about what people give up when living under a Constitution.
"Well, like John Locke stated, that once people agree to go into a social contract, they have to follow the way of the majority," she says. "And they give up that right in turn for their own safety."
Marshwood High's "We the People" competitors, left to right, Leighton Magoon, Dominique Ginuisz and Conor LaSelva.
In another room, Marshwood High is feeling the pressure. Leighton Magoon is a senior. "We all really want to go to Washington," she says. "But also there's that slight edge that, the past three or four years, Marshwood has won, so there's that chip on our shoulder that if we're the one group that doesn't get in, we're going to be slightly disappointed."
On their turn, Magoon and his team are poised and professional, bringing in current events to answer a question about how limited or unlimited free speech should be. "There are certain situtations, like in the recent inaugural, the Westborough Baptist Church was entitled to their free speech," he says. "However they were placed in a free speech zone."
Magoon says preparing for this competition gave him and his teammates a connection to government they can't get anywhere else. And the connection struck fellow teammate Dominique Giniusz, who has a love for civics after her primary interest, art.
"Knowing about the country is amazing, 'cause we have to live here," she says. "And I mean my mother is an immigrant, she came from Brazil. I see the differences between the two countries and I see how they handle things, and it's amazing. America is a wonderful country. Even though we have our partisan divides, and we have our problems in Congress, we are a beautiful nation."
After a couple of hours, the competition is over, and the teams find out who will move on to nationals in Washington, DC.
Announcer: "The winner for this year, representing the state of Maine at the We the People national competition, is Marshwood High School." (applause)
The applause is stifled and polite, but there's an outburst after some surprising news: Noble High gets to go to nationals as well, under a "wild card" slot.
It's a fitting reward for students like Nikita Naumowicz, who says the experience has instilled a sense of civic duty. "Because before this competition, I really didn't care about government as much as I should, and now, I'm glad that I have this exposure," she says.
What more, says her Noble High coach Janice Eldridge, could a teacher want?
Photos by Patty Wight.