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N.H. teacher's question put debaters on the spot

October 9, 2008
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Perhaps the most memorable question came at the end of Tuesday night's presidential debate, when Tom Brokaw asked what he described as a "Zen-like" query submitted online by Peggy in Amherst, N.H.

The question - "What don't you know and how will you learn it?" - did not, however, come from a Zen master, a Buddhist monk, or a student of Confucius. It was the brainchild of Peggy Silva, a 60-year-old high school teacher who has been lobbing the question at presidential candidates for the last 18 years.

"I'm the least Zen-like person on the planet," Silva said with a laugh in a telephone interview yesterday. "I'm chaotic, I'm disorganized, and I giggle."

Living in New Hampshire has given the writing coordinator and literacy coach at Souhegan High School ample opportunity to grill presidential hopefuls.

Silva said she posed the question to Governor Bill Clinton during his first presidential run in 1992, and to then-Governor George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore in 2000.

Silva said she first asked Senator John McCain the question in 2000 at the Amherst Middle School. McCain began answering the question, but stumbled and stopped, she said.

On Tuesday night, Silva said, she did not know that her question had made the cut and feeling ill, went to bed before the debate concluded.

"Then I heard my husband shouting from the living room," said Silva, who immediately watched a recording of the candidates' answers.

How did McCain do in his second try? He treated the question much the same way Senator Barack Obama did, as a jumping-off point for a closing statement heavy on biography.

"My goal is not to stump the responders," said Silva, a registered Democrat and ardent Obama supporter. "My goal is to elicit a thoughtful response that prevented a rote answer."

ANDREW RYAN

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