Photos by Conrad Schmidt
Photos by Conrad Schmidt
Thursday, February 9, 2012

Nora McKenzie distinctly remembers a federal legislative session on TV that she watched as a high school freshman.

But it wasn’t the big issue of that day — nor whether it was aired on CNN or C-SPAN — that stuck in her mind. It was the teenage girl on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives who took paperwork from the House speaker to the back of the chamber that caught her eye.

“And I was like, ‘Mom, I don’t know what that is, but I want to do what that girl’s doing right there,’ ” she recalled.

Her mother, Tammie McKenzie, assistant principal at Carroll High School, explained what the girl on TV was doing: She was a legislative page, an assistant to the lawmakers elected to represent and govern the people of Iowa and elsewhere.

“You could do that,” Tammie told her daughter.

Now, two years later, Nora McKenzie, 17, has fulfilled that fantasy, albeit on a smaller stage: the Carroll High senior is a statehouse page assigned to help the chief clerk’s office.

Bob Pauk, who teaches government and western civilization at Carroll High School, has known McKenzie since she was in middle school and taught her in both of those classes. Every year, he gathers information about the statehouse page program and passes it along to his students for those who are interested.

“She just jumped all over it,” Pauk said of McKenzie.

McKenzie wrote an essay and collected letters of recommendation to bolster her application. She had a choice to interview for three areas: the Iowa House, Senate or Legislative Services Agency.

She applied and interviewed for all three, of course.

McKenzie is among a handful of Carroll High students who have worked at the statehouse under the page program. She juggles the duties with a limited number of Carroll classes — gym, reading and Spanish — on which she can study away from school and submit assignments in-person on Fridays when she is back in town. She lives most of the week with three other pages in an East Village apartment near downtown Des Moines, not far from the Capitol.

Here is McKenzie’s typical day among the lawmakers: she delivers newspapers to different areas of the House in the morning. When the House gavels in, she takes her place next to the clerk and his secretary up front. She delivers paperwork during debates, helps with the voting machine during votes, and sometimes she runs documents across the Capitol to the Senate. She makes a lot of copies, proofreads, files and even helps with the camera work for the live stream of the House floor happenings.

“She’s always been very independent and goal-oriented,” her mom said.

This is McKenzie’s first glimpse at politics up-close. It’s also her first real job, aside from her baby-sitting gigs in Carroll. She also volunteers as a mock-trial coach for middle school students — something she has done since she was a sophomore.

“I don’t really have a lot of time to do a lot of other things,” she said.

McKenzie hopes to go to college and then eventually to law school. Although she hasn’t applied yet, she wants to go to Cornell College, the alma mater of her parents. She’s not sure what kind of law she wants to practice just yet. But her page experience has taught that her many legislators and workers in the statehouse are lawyers, which she said has made her think about getting involved in politics down the line, too.

But those aren’t the big issues that stick in her mind this legislative session.

Right now, she’s just happy to be that teenage girl on the floor of the House.