D.C. congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton has some critiquing to do: Her new interns’ phone skills could use some polishing. Crammed onto a couch in Norton’s office like a row of overgrown teeth, a half-dozen interns stare silently at the floor or the bowl of cheap candy on the coffee table. They are participants in Norton’s special three-week program, which places 254 D.C. public school students in congressional offices while their schools are being repaired.

Uncomfortable in their Sunday best, the kids would obviously rather be in gym class right around now. But they don’t dare interrupt Norton’s civics lecture.

Although she coats her lesson in praise, the congresswoman has a point to make: The phones are a vital link to the outside. “If you come on wrong, you can lose a voter,” she tells them.

Norton admits she secretly called up her own office to check on how her new recruits play congressional operators. She noticed a glitch in the performance of Justin McKay, 17, a senior at Wilson High School. McKay, dressed in his soccer uniform, mentions that he has to be going soon to make practice. But Norton is on a roll. “Just go a little slower,” she instructs. “He answered exactly right; he answered the phone after two rings like we told him. But he was too fast.”

McKay and the others just nod. The two-ring rule is just part of the daily routine of filing, collating, and maybe percolating as temporary interns, in a switcheroo where kids get to trade faulty roofs for the glass ceilings of Capitol Hill interns.

So far, they’ve learned how to shovel loads of protocol. They’ve learned to hurry up and wait. They’ve learned that it’s easier to walk across the street than take on the congressional tunnels.

To their surprise, Congress can be a lot like school. Norton’s press secretary Donna Brazile plays the stoic English teacher. A shrill bell rings through the halls when members need to be somewhere. (“That noise will kill you,” exclaims Rodney Bunn, 15, a sophomore at School Without Walls and an intern for Rep. “Richie” (as Bunn calls him) Gephardt (D-Mo.).) When the group gets too rowdy—say, above a whisper—Brazile is quick to rebuke. And you still need a hall pass when you leave the office. “It’s OK until you get to the Senate,” explains Curtis Banks, 15, a junior at Dunbar High School. “They stop you every five minutes and ask for your ID.”

But the impromptu day-care program’s biggest success may be to show students how good their schools really are. Katharine Liu, 16, a junior at Wilson and an intern with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), says, “School is more mentally challenging, I would have to say, even D.C. schools. I’m starting to look forward to it.”

Heather Thomas, a senior at Duke Ellington School of the Arts and an intern for Rep. Connie Morella (R-Md.), is even more pressed to get back to the books. “I would rather be in school,” she says. “I have a lot of applications to get out this year. It’s throwing me off.”

In the meantime, it’s better than staying home and watching Jenny Jones. Earlier in the day, the interns get a Domino’s pizza break. Sitting in Brazile’s office, they chew the fat along with their pepperoni. In one already legendary story, a novice intern was asked to have Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) sign a letter to President Clinton. Instead of having him sign it, though, the intern graced the document with his very own moniker. Brazile had to call the White House and explain why the student’s signature appeared next to Jackson’s.

With the pizza finished and Norton’s lecture complete, Banks gets sent on another errand. He has to go to various offices and gather pictures and bios of congresswomen. As he deals with one hurried but coiffed staffer after the next, Banks just takes it all in stride. Dressed in black pants, white shirt, conservative blue tie, and black suede shoes, he has the rules down.

“Kids in D.C. are made to be misfits, but I don’t feel like a misfit,” he explains. Why not? “It’s the shoes.”CP