President Jimmy Carter agreed to answer seven questions from Scholastic students; these questions were selected from several hundred posted by Scholastic students.
Q: Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in public service? -- Mr. Arthur Thompson's 8th grade social studies class, Wanaque School, Wanaque, NJ
President Carter: My family has always been involved in community affairs. My mother's father, Jim Jack Gordy, was named for the Revolutionary War hero James Jackson, who accepted the British surrender of Savannah and was later a Georgia congressman, governor, and senator. My grandfather never ran for political office himself, but as postmaster in the nearby town of Richland, Georgia, he was the first person to propose the RFD system of free rural mail delivery. In 1893, Congress implemented his system nationwide. Jim Jack was an avid follower of the political scene, and long after retirement age, he still worked as a doorkeeper at the state capitol to keep in tune with Georgia politics.
I also learned a great deal about hard work and service from Admiral Hyman Rickover, under whom I served as a junior officer in the Navy, and from my mother, a wonderful and kindhearted registered nurse. But the best example of public service was set for me by my father. We regularly attended political rallies and debates during the turbulent political times of the Great Depression. My father was active in our church, served on the county school board, and briefly served as a state legislator before his death in 1953. Near the end of his life, I took a few weeks leave from the Navy to be at his bedside in Plains. While I was there, we received a steady stream of visitors who all told of some previously unknown act of kindness my father had done them. Even my mother was surprised to learn of the quiet impact he had had on our community. I realized then that no matter what I did in the Navy, I would probably never mean as much to people as my daddy meant to this tiny community of Plains.
When he died, I resigned my commission in the Navy, and Rosalynn and I returned to Plains to take over the family business. I soon became involved in our church and community affairs, and, like my daddy before me, served on the local school board. I was later elected a state legislator, governor, and, of course, president.
Q: In your opinion, what was your greatest achievement as president? -- Eastchester Middle School, Eastchester, NY
President Carter: I am proud of many things that we accomplished during my four years in the White House. The SALT II agreements helped curb the nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union, and the establishment of diplomatic ties with China gave us an important link to the most populace country in the world. The Alaska Lands Act protected more than 97 million acres of pristine wilderness — an area larger than the whole state of California — and doubled the size of the National Park and Wildlife Refuge System. We created the departments of energy and education to safeguard our future, and made human rights a top priority in foreign affairs.
Of all of those achievements, though, I would have to say that I am most proud of the agreements we helped reach at Camp David between Israel and Egypt. Those agreements led to a formal peace treaty between the two nations and continue to guide the Middle East peace process even now, sixteen years later.
Q: In retrospect, how would you have handled the Iranian hostage crisis differently? -- Mrs. Miller's class, Hartford High School, Hartford, MI
President Carter: Before I left office as President, I had negotiated the safe return of every American who had been taken hostage in Iran. They had been held too long, and this had frustrated the American people. If I had taken the United States into war with Iran, the American people would have rallied behind me, and, I believe, I would have been reelected. But I also believe that the hostages would have been killed, and so would thousands of others. So, in retrospect, I would not have handled the crisis differently.
Q: What do you consider to be the most important peace effort you achieved? -- Mrs. Enger's 4th grade class, Hillcrest Elementary, Cantonsville, MD
President Carter: Camp David — see question 2.
Q: This is our class's first time online. Our class is located in a small rural county in North Carolina, and technology is a very new and exciting thing for us. We would like to know how you feel about the importance of technology in schools. -- Ms. Martin's fourth grade class, King Intermediate, King, NC
President Carter: Like you, I grew up in a small, rural community. For as long as I can remember, whenever relatives would ask me what I wanted for Christmas or my birthdays, I would always tell them "books." My school superintendent, Miss Julia Coleman, set high standards for all of her students and took a special interest in encouraging me to read. Books offer a wonderful window on the world to people wherever they live, and reading remains a fun and vital way to learn. Today, computers and on-line services like the one you are using now offer even greater opportunities to explore the world from our desktops. I still read three to four books a week, but I also use a computer to learn in ways I had not thought possible in my youth.
Q: Your recent involvement in world affairs, and your success with Habitat for Humanity are examples to all of us about honor and citizenship. Our question is this: You've seen some pretty disheartening things in your lifetime and as president, and yet you have persevered. What advice do you have for kids growing up with a sense of little hope for the future and little belief in America or the ideals of citizenship and freedom? -- Mr. Fields'class at McCormick Junior High, Cheyenne, WY
President Carter: In a career of public service, I have seen both the beauty and the sadness that humanity can create. Throughout it all, I have maintained an abiding faith in God and firmly believe that every one of us can have a positive impact on the world. And you needn't be a governor, a president, or even an adult to do so. I know from my own campaigns how much political candidates, for instance, depend on young people. Think about what issues are most important to you, and in the next election — state, local, or national — find a candidate who believes in those issues too, and see what you can do to help them. Answering phones, posting flyers, and handing out buttons all are important contributions. In the 1960s, I saw my own children and their friends change our nation's policies by working against the Vietnam War, supporting civil rights, and organizing the first Earth Day. And during our negotiations at Camp David, Israeli Prime Minister Begin was ready to leave without reaching an agreement until we shared pictures of our grandchildren and discussed the impact our decisions would have on their world.
One of the programs we have at The Carter Center is called The Atlanta Project, or "TAP." TAP is an effort to help Atlanta's communities organize, to listen to their needs, and to work with them to find resources and devise solutions to some of our most troubling urban ills. Chief among those problems is the lack of hope you describe. Young people are a big part of our solution. Through an offshoot called FutureForce, TAP is teaching the same young people who might be doing poorly in school or running into trouble with the law to instead become leaders in their communities and schools. They are helping spread the word that if we each tackle a small part of our nation's troubles and work together to solve them, we can and will change things for the better.
It can be discouraging to see so many challenges facing us today, and you may not easily see what you can do to help. But as we often say in The Atlanta Project, "the only real failure would be not to try."
Q: Every day at school we try to be peacemakers. At school we have a peacemaking class. How do you think we can become better peacemakers? -- Sam, Alex, Kevin, and Chris, Sr. Joan's 6th grade, Gilmour Academy Lower School, Gates Mills, OH
President Carter: Two years ago, I wrote a book for students your age on that very question. It's called Talking Peace, and I hope you'll find it helpful in your own pursuits of peace. In it, you'll learn about things like the Camp David negotiations, various challenges at home and abroad, The Carter Center's peacemaking efforts, and how you can get involved. Here are a few suggestions:
First, use your school or local library and read as much as you can about world events. Watch the news and listen to the radio. If you hear the name of an unfamiliar place, look it up. You'll be connecting yourself more closely to the world around you.
Second, share your concerns with others. Teachers, friends, community groups, and governments have a lot to learn from your ideas about the world. When Rosalynn and I were in the White House, we learned a great deal about the public schools in Washington from our daughter Amy, who was your age at the time. Her insights were very useful to us in shaping the new Department of Education. If you feel strongly about communicating with someone you cannot easily meet, like a government official or corporate leader, write him or her a letter. By sharing your views, you'll encourage others to help you achieve your goals.
And third, take some time to reflect on what you learn. Most of the issues you'll hear about in the news are quite complex, and they rarely have simple answers. Consider keeping a journal, and record in it your discoveries and ideas about current events, your reactions to conflicts in your own life, and your ideas for the future. Each day while I was president, I dictated my thoughts into a private diary, and those records became an excellent sounding board and resource as I tackled various problems.
The most important thing for a peacemaker to do, of course, is to listen equally and fairly to both sides of a dispute. That is often much more difficult than it sounds, but fairness and trust are the most useful tools a peacemaker has. These tools are just as important in everyday life as they are at a negotiating table. By working to understand the causes of conflict at home and at school, within our families and among our friends, and by learning to resolve them by talking it out instead of slugging it out, we can all help build a world at peace.