Commentary, Guest Commentary

A Penny for Your Thoughts

In all the cacophony surrounding assaults on democracy and the founding ideals of the United States of America, a recent op-ed in the Washington Post brought some suggested clarity to the battles for ideas, inclusion, and independent thought.  The essay was by Eli Tillemann, a senior at the Thomas Jefferson High School of Science and Technology (TJ), who is president of both the Young Democrats Club and the Teenage Republicans Club at TJ.  I am not sure how you can head two such disparate organizations in today’s political climate, but perhaps young Mr. Tillemann is learning how to navigate those rough seas.  He certainly makes a case for more civil discussion in his August 29 essay.

The catalyst for the essay was the change to the admissions process at TJ, which has occupied some local and national headlines, and prompted an appeal to the United States Supreme Court.  The essay included some brief ideas from students in both clubs, but the process was not the major point of the piece; learning how to debate issues constructively was, and the author pointed out that the current curriculum is not preparing students to debate constructively, so they set out to write their own. 

The two clubs worked with a professional team of experts and hosted lectures about a variety of subjects, including communication in the digital age and how to disagree.  Students want to fix problems, he said, and gain the skills to “tackle controversial problems constructively.”  He added that the students hope that the adults involved in the turmoil at TJ will consider their examples.  It is not hard to understand that, if they are too mired into warring camps, there might not be an opportunity to cease the current squabbling.  Mr. Tillemann posits that the “best outcomes in policy, business, and life usually emerge from a competition of ideas and a compromise on solutions.”

To learn and understand that at such a youthful age is refreshing, to say the least, and reflects what elected officials, especially at the local level, grapple with all the time in making decisions that can affect large numbers of people.  It’s often difficult to find that “sweet spot” that will allow everyone to come away with something important to them; not a winner take all approach, but a realistic approach to solving a problem.  Not everybody gets everything they want, but not everybody leaves without getting anything at all.  It’s an interesting balancing act that involves a lot of listening and respectful debate, patience, civility even when tempers flare (what yours never must do) and, ultimately, being able to explain and defend the decision(s) you make.  

Mr. Tillemann concluded his essay by observing, correctly, that “it will take more than a handful of high schoolers to deal with the consequences of polarization” and adds that “constructive, respectful disagreement is vital to a functioning democracy.”  That approach deserves to be recognized and replicated across our communities and our society, by youth and adults alike.

Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor, in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be emailed at


  • Penny Gross

    Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be e-mailed at