Teens traveled to capitol to see inauguration

Jack Lowrence and Emily Gage inside the Capitol. - Courtesy photo
Jack Lowrence and Emily Gage inside the Capitol.
— image credit: Courtesy photo


For The Beachcomber

Calen Winn was fascinated by the Civil Rights movement and hoped he could be present for an event that would hearken back to the 1963 March on Washington, when Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his historic “I Have a Dream” speech.

Emily White-Davis felt cynical about politics but found a new pride in being American when Barack Obama was elected.

“It wasn’t just about him,” she said. “It was about America being so together.”

Molly Crosby voted for the first time in her life this fall — for Barack Obama.

If Chris Carter had been old enough to vote, he would have supported John McCain, but he was no less enthusiastic about attending the inauguration of Barack Obama.

“The president of the United States getting sworn into office is cool no matter how you feel politically,” he said.

These four Vashon High School seniors plus eight others signed up in June to attend what they knew was going to be an historic event — the inauguration of the 44th president — even though, at the time, they didn’t know who that president would be.

In the next seven months, their government teacher, Cindy Powell, arranged a tour and tried every avenue to get tickets, while the students raised money.

They planned for worst-case scenarios — getting separated by crushing crowds, not enough bathrooms, the possibility that they might not make it onto the National Mall — and never lost their enthusiasm, even when the hoped-for tickets didn’t come through.

The 12 students and their teacher spent four amazing days in Washington D.C., which included not only the requisite tour of the White House and other area sites, as well as the inauguration, but also some unexpected thrills, such as the “We Are One” concert at the Lincoln Memorial, which featured celebrities such as Bruce Springsteen and U2, and was attended by an estimated half million people.

On inauguration morning, anxious to get a spot on the National Mall, they ate breakfast at 4:30 a.m.

Even with the early start, it seemed they would end up far from the podium.

But by breaking away from a larger tour group, they managed to “crowd surf” to a good spot near the Smithsonian Castle where they could see the Capitol in the distance and watch the events on a nearby Jumbotron.

When they recount the day, they mention the bitter cold — 13 degrees with the wind chill — but none complain about being in the epicenter of two million people.

Crosby wore six layers of clothing and three pairs of gloves. But, she said, “There was a euphoria being in the midst of old people, young people, people of different races and backgrounds, all cheering… I had cast my vote and it was so great to be with other people who had voted and were coming together for a change.”

“The enthusiasm and happiness of being in that crowd was a little overwhelming, but in a good way,” agreed White-Davis. “We waved American flags, and it was almost cliché, but it didn’t feel cliché at all.”

“I’ve never been in a crowd that big or one with that much goodwill,” said Powell. “Being with approximately two million people from all nations, ethnicities and races gave me a sense of how far we’ve come as a collective people. I have never been so proud to be an American.”

Winn had especially wanted to see the Lincoln Memorial, where King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, as well as hear another great orator — Barack Obama — deliver an inspiring speech.

While the speech inspired them all, they never did get close to the Lincoln Memorial. Nevertheless, Winn said, “Every time ‘My Country ’Tis of Thee’ was sung at events, most notably by Aretha Franklin during the inauguration, my brain went back to the line from King’s speech: ‘that will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning: My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.’”

For a number of the students, however, the most powerful moment of the trip turned out not to be the inauguration, but the surprise they received the next day.

After meeting and sharing some of their classmates’ concerns with U.S. Rep.Jim McDermott (D-Seattle), an aide took them on a private tour of the Capitol.

“We got to go past the lines and right onto the floor of the House of Representatives and sit in the seats,” said Carter, who will attend George Washington University’s Elliot School of International Affairs next year. “For a government nerd like me, I was beside myself.”

After months of nail biting, as the group wondered whether they would get to participate in history, all agreed the trip was an unparalleled success.

“I was definitely proud to be there,” said Winn. “It’s a moment we’ll get to tell our grandkids about.”

— Lesley Reed is a freelance writer who lives on Vashon.

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