If one likens the last U.S. Senate session to a football game, one Pendleton teenager had a seat right smack on the 50-yard line.
Most of us get just a whiff of the inner workings of Capitol Hill, receiving only a glimpse of Senate proceedings on CSPAN or via newspaper or Internet. Amy Neal, however, soaked it in through every pore for almost five months as a U.S. Senate page.
Starting in late January, Neal was in the thick of it, hanging out at the front of Senate chambers, watching historic legislation in the making while fetching papers, delivering messages and dispensing water to senators.
Neal, a junior at Pendleton High School, lived in something of a bubble with 28 other pages, both Democratic and Republican. The teenagers lived together in a dorm in a regimented lifestyle that left little time for Facebook or Twitter. Cell phones were verboten. They traded jeans and jewelry for navy blue polyester suits, white, long-sleeved shirts, black shoes and black socks. Boys donned ties.
The pages, sponsored by senators from their home states, rolled out of bed early each morning.
"Pages get up before the sun gets up," Neal said. "We go to school at 6:15."
Neal and her dorm mates studied English, math, science and history, before heading off to the Capitol, four blocks away. Neal said the pages set about organizing the chambers before senators arrived.
"We set out copies of the daily Congressional Record, the Executive Calendar, the Calendar of Business and copies of the bills and legislative notices," Neal said.
The biggest bill she ever distributed was H.R. 1 - the Stimulus Package.
"It's two separate books about this thick," she said, spreading her thumb and forefinger about two inches apart.
During the sessions, pages divided up along partisan lines and attended to senators in their particular parties. Neal, sponsored by Sen. Gordon Smith before his defeat in November, was a Republican page.
"We sat on separate sides of the rostrum," Neal said of the pages.
Neal rotated her way through the list of duties. On some days, she'd sit directly to the left of the presiding officer on the rostrum and focused on the senators on her side of the aisle.
"That's called 'being on point,'" she said. "A senator makes eye contact with you and signals when he wants a lectern or a glass of water."
The portable lecterns are equipped with microphones. As far as water, some of the senators are picky about their H2O - instructions inside the Cloakroom refrigerator describe preferences (with ice, without ice, sparkling).
Other days, Neal sat next to the Senate phone. At the soft buzzing sound that signaled incoming calls, she'd answer, "Senate floor, this is Amy." The call could be a request to send a page to a certain location or instructions to tell a senator his wife was on the line. The page next to her completed the errands.
During each day, two groups of pages switched off each hour, doing homework or relaxing during their off hours. Some days lasted until 1 a.m., though most days they got back to the dorm by a more reasonable 7 p.m. or so.
"At the end of day, we scrambled to get our homework done," Neal said. "I usually finished by 10:30 or 11 (lights out time)."
Some pages, she said, completed their homework by flashlight.
Neal found watching legislators in action a fascinating experience. In joint sessions with the House, she listened to President Obama and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
Neal also enjoyed seeing the senators' personal sides. One day, she witnessed Sen. John McCain clowning with Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota), singing an oldies classic and playing air guitar.
On the day the Senate passed the Stimulus Bill, Neal ran into Vice President Joe Biden in the copy room at about 1 a.m. She wrestled with the Republican copy machine, which refused to work.
"I turned around to use the Democratic copy machine," Neal said. "Joe Biden was standing right there."
"Hi, I'm Joe," he said, before inviting Neal and some other pages into his office for a group photo and to shoot the breeze.
On the subway that runs beneath government buildings, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) plopped down next to her and chatted about Oregon, Sen. Smith and his boots embroidered with the Senate seal.
She dubbed Sen. Johnny Isaacson (R-Georgia) as the nicest senator she met. Sen. Roger Wicker got Neal's nod as the silliest senator.
Neal plans to communicate regularly with many of her fellow pages, especially Rajiv Tarigopula. Neal and the Missouri teen, runner-up in the National Spelling Bee, forged a tight friendship during their months together.
Neal returned to Pendleton on June 6, just in time to watch PHS graduation ceremonies.