The best on screen performance by comedian-actor Robin Williams is his portrayal of teacher John Keating in the film "Dead Poet's Society." He was justifiably nominated for an Oscar, and the file was a critical and commercial success. The story of the instructor who gets much more from his students is an old one indeed, and not always limited to the confines of a New England boys school.
Like many a middle aged man, attorney Tad Armstrong routinely started his Saturday mornings in the company of like souls, bound together over a cup of steaming liquid caffeine. During these weekend coffee sessions, the talk invariably turned to current events, to politics and the interplay with the legal system.
It was at this point more than five years ago that Armstrong realized that his coffee-mates, like the populace as a whole, were woefully and wilfully ignorant of the true language of the U.S. Constitution. After "too many to count" occurrences of correcting the false statements made by his friends, he responded to the challenge by creating the means to teach the actual U.S. Supreme Court interpretations of our founding covenant.
Thus, in the small confines of a church basement in Edwardsville, was the humble birth of a movement whose goal was nothing less than to bring constitutional education to a skeptical but appreciative public.
Flash forward some five plus years, over 5,000 hours in donated time by Armstrong alone, some 3,200 pages of materials and the end result of the experiment is a Club, dedicated to the simple proposition that as Jefferson once said "A democracy can never be both ignorant AND free."
The Club, now called "Earn it, Learn it or Lose it" - ELL for short -was midwifed into existence by not only the extraordinary single-minded dedication of its founder, but the assistance of volunteer attorneys who serve as moderators of the various branch sessions.
Starting with the original group of adults in Edwardsville, ELL has now spread to adult sessions in Granite City, Highland, Glen Carbon and Alton, and a group at Edwardsville High School as well. There is no charge to the students, nor payment to the attorneys. All who participate do so out of a thirst for knowledge and a respect for the true meaning of the words of the Constitution.
In Alton, the sessions meet on the second Thursday of the month, in a room graciously donated by the fine folks at the Heartland Baptist Church on Humbert Road. Each session begins at 7 p.m., goes for about an hour then a short coffee and refreshment break, then back for another 45 minutes or so. The students are given approximately 50 pages of materials to read and digest, with each month's assignment passed out at the beginning of the prior session. They can then take the work home, read and critically analyze the cases, and prepare for the discussions to follow the next month. Class participation is encouraged and rewarded.
The classes have looked at the Articles of the Constitution itself, as well as the all-important Amendments, by far the most voluminous source of opinions by the U.S. Supreme Court. It is these opinions, meticulously collected by Armstrong and digested in the student hand outs that form the laboratory of enlightenment.
It is this work that takes so long, and has been singularly a Herculean task performed. The attorney moderators, all five of them now, spend an average of 15 hours a month in preparation. Such donations pale in comparison to the more than $1 million in free time logged by Armstrong in the pursuit of his dream.
After two years, the moderator of the Alton sessions - attorney Neal Wallace - had to beg off due to the press of private business.
Fortunately, the void was short lived. Guided by the determined vision of Bar President Mary Albert-Fritz, the lawyers of the Alton-Wood River Bar Association - including your correspondent at The Record - have now stepped up and assumed roles as moderator.
The Bar has purchased pocket-sized copies of the Constitution to distribute to the students, slightly but effectively changed the format, and will staff the class with a rotating group of volunteer lawyers, all sharing the vision of an informed and empowered citizenry.
Like John Keating, the volunteer lawyers of the ELL project - Irv Slate in Granite City, Dayna Johnson in Glen Carbon, Hopkins and Albert-Fritz in Alton, and Founding Father Armstrong in Edwardsville - have received far more back than they have given. The impact of the students learning about the true meaning of the Constitution, enabling even a slight portion of the citizenry to "Seize the Day" -carpe diem - is priceless, just like the Visa commercial says.
Come on out to the next session in your area. You might be entertained. You might be challenged. You might be confused. In any event, you will be the better for it. The students are of all ages, bright, dedicated and the discussions are lively. You might just learn something valuable for a lifetime.
Hope to see you there.