ASHEVILLE, NC (Citizen-Times) -- Students in Patti Evans’ class at Dickson Elementary may be practicing their persuasive writing in letters to state senators.
The first-graders may also try phone calls to lawmakers in their push for North Carolina to name a new state spider.
They are hopeful about their chances after a bill they researched and suggested cleared the state House recently.
A parent, Julie Wade, of a student in Evans' class, approached Rep. Susan Fisher, D-Buncombe, to sponsor the bill, which had taken it on as a project.
The students started by studying the existing symbols such as the state mineral (gold) or the state beverage (milk). They got help with their research from school media coordinator Crystal Hendrix and volunteer Ada Smith, the grandmother of a student in the class.
“After learning all of that, we said wouldn’t it be fun to make a new state symbol, and we talked about how that happens, how people can suggest it to the legislature, but it has to become law," Evans said. "Everybody has to agree.”
The students decided since North Carolina didn’t have a state spider, they wanted to change that.
In groups of two, the students studied a dozen of the state’s most common spiders including the trapdoor spider, which hides underground to wait for prey. They also studied the jumping spider and the wolf spider.
The students made posters and compiled facts about each spider. They then voted on their favorites.
The day of the crucial classroom vote, students stood up and talked about their spiders, trying to win over classmates. In the end, the golden silk spider came out on top.
The students voted twice. “We wanted to be sure that was the one that would make the best state symbol,” Evans said.
Simone Menne and Logan Border had the winning spider.
The spider's bites are not poisonous, the students say. And they eat pesky mosquitoes and other insects.
“The golden silk spider is a really interesting spider because they have babies, and when the babies think the predator's coming, they start bouncing off the web and when the predator is about to get them they jump off,” said Quinn Smith, 7. “When the predator’s gone, they get back on the web.”
Students distilled much of their knowledge into a nearly page-long bill they played a major role in writing. It passed the House 111-8 on April 25.
The spider "is known for its golden colored silk, which is used to create a large, finely meshed, sticky web, often three feet in diameter, that is placed in insect flight paths on the edge of woodlands," the bill says.
"Females can grow up to three inches and are among the largest non-tarantula-like spiders in North America" and have a "large, cylindrical orange and brown body with furry tufts on (their) legs" while males are "much smaller and ... dark brown in color."
Nonetheless, legislators had questions, mostly lighthearted, during floor debate on one of the House's busiest days of the year as a deadline to get bills passed by one legislative chamber or the other loomed.
"I work outside a lot. If I happen to step on one and squish it, will I get a citation?" said Rep. Mark Brody, R-Union.
"I don’t think so, but be careful nonetheless," Fisher said.
Rep. William Brawley, R-Mecklenburg, wondered if Fisher could pronounce the spider's scientific name, Nephila clavipes. She gave it a shot, then Brawley said the bill shows the Dickson kids already have what it takes to work for the General Assembly.
Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, wanted to know if the female golden silk spider ever eats its mate.
Fisher responded, "This is one of those spiders. I cannot tell a lie."
Lewis said he would vote for the bill anyway, adding, "But I think for the children that are listening, the children in the (House) chamber, we may learn to watch who sponsors a bill, for there may be a hidden meaning."
After supporters of the Concord High School Spiders in Cabarrus County and the University of Richmond Spiders in Virginia gave their backing, the bill was sent to the Senate.
What reception it will get there is difficult to say. Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell, sponsored a bill in 2015 and again this year to have the Linville Caverns spider named the state's official spider. It is found in the caves in northern McDowell County and nowhere else in the world, his bill says.
But bills that don't include either spending, a tax or a fee and haven't passed either the House and Senate by April 27 are dead for the year under legislative rules. There are ways to get around that prohibition, but they are usually reserved for weightier matters.
Thanks to the project, the students learned about both spiders and what it takes to get a law passed.
They even listened to the state lawmakers debate other legislation as they followed their bill.
“They sounded like preachers,” first-grader Sam Blair said of the discussions.
Hendrix listened to the debate when the spider bill finally came up for a vote.
“You don’t really think of those guys (lawmakers) as always having a sense of humor," she said. "And it was nice to see them have a sense of humor and seem to really enjoy more of a kind banter back and forth."
Cardinals, milk and shad boats
Naming something a state symbol can sometimes get caught up in political considerations in the General Assembly just like any other subject.
The Plott hound became the official state dog as part of a 1989 deal that also lead to tougher penalties for taking dogs and some other animals. The fact that the state has an official red berry, the strawberry, and blue berry, the blueberry, seems to suggest a political compromise.
Other elementary school classes have gotten behind requests to name other state symbols in recent years. Students at Benvenue Elementary in Rocky Mount are pushing a bill this year to name the bobcat as the state cat. It has passed the House but not the Senate.
Many elementary school students study the symbols. In case you don't have a fourth grader handy to recite them for you, here is the list:
Shell: Scotch bonnet
Mammal: gray squirrel
Saltwater fish: channel bass (red drum)
Precious stone: emerald
Reptile: box turtle
Historical boat: shad boat
Dog: Plott hound
Tartan: Carolina tartan
Vegetable: sweet potato
Fruit: scuppernong grape
Red berry: strawberry
Blue berry: blueberry
Wildflower: Carolina lilly
Carnivorous plant: Venus flytrap
Folk dance: clogging
Popular dance: shagging
Christmas tree: Fraser fir
Freshwater trout: brook trout
Horse: Spanish mustang
Sport: stock car racing
Butterfly: eastern tiger swallowtail
Fossil: fossilized teeth of the megalodon shark
Frog: pine barrens tree frog
Salamander: marbled salamander
Marsupial: Virginia opossum
Folk art: Vollis Simpson whirligigs
Art medium: clay
Source: N.C. General Statute 145