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Students get face time with President Obama after White House tour
TOUR OF A LIFETIME: President Obama welcomes his young visitors to the Oval Office. (Bill O'leary/the Washington Post)
By DeNeen L. Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 6, 2010
Some chances come along just once in a lifetime, leaving you speechless, stomach in knots, just standing there not knowing what to say. So nervous, you can't even smile. Heart about to jump out of your chest. The president reaching for your hand. And you . . . and you are frozen. . . . William Butler hadn't had a fantastic life, but he was trying to make up, going about his business, not bothering anybody, trying to do the right thing. Then, just like that, something happened that completely blew his mind.
He had returned to school after dropping out, going for his GED, dreaming of attending college. The Washington Post happened to write about how he and other students in the area were touched by President Obama's election. And then his life changed. The White House called and invited him for a private tour with the other students. "I didn't believe it," Butler says. "I was thinking, 'Wow! What am I going to wear?' "
He smiles a crooked smile.
His hair is gray.He is 22. "I have one dress shirt and two pairs of slacks. Not much to choose from. My teacher said to just wear a dress shirt and khakis would be okay." The sky looked ominous when he woke up Friday, the day of the tour. He hadn't slept well because of the anticipation. Actually, he never does sleep well. He doesn't own an alarm clock or watch. "Nothing in my apartment is electric except for the lights," he says. Can't afford it. The walls are stark white in his transitional-housing apartment. The carpet tan. He just moved in Monday from a homeless shelter.
He brushes his teeth, then bounds up a flight of stairs to the street. He walks the seven or eight blocks to school.
He is excited. Aside from the fact that he is going to the White House -- it's payday. His GED program enrolls students as construction apprentices.
Butler arrives early at the northeast gate of the White House. Other students gather. Khalil Parker, 11, can't wait. Elizabeth Lyon, Timothy Spicer and Nelson Canales, all 17, huddle together as snow falls.
The gate opens, and they walk the long black drive to the massive entrance to the East Wing.
"Will they have appetizers or something to drink?" Butler asks. "I wonder whether they will have
chicken or something on toothpicks."
He waits under a portico. "Don't they have like a garden or something? Do you think I might be able to get a potato or something?" In his fridge at home are three things, staples: pepperoni Hot Pockets, bagels and Hawaiian Punch.
They go through the gate.
Neha Khan, 15, says, "I'm kind a blanked out."
"Right now I still can't really believe I'm here," says Ajani Thomas, 12. "I'm in the White House.
I never imagined."
They look through the windows over the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden.
They sweep through the private theater where the first family watches movies. "They can't just go out to the movies," the tour guide says.
They pass photos in the long hallway. John Travolta dancing with Princess Di. Stevie Wonder and first lady Michelle Obama in that emerald green dress. Ella Fitzgerald performing for President Gerald Ford in 1976.
They enter the hallway of the first ladies.
Then to the East Room. The tour guide points to the red carpet, familiar because that is the carpet Obama walks down before his news conferences.
Timothy stands in the spot, soaking it in. "I'm just practicing" being president, he says.
They sweep through the green room, the state dining room. Khalil tries out all the chairs.
The guide leads them outside and into the West Wing.
They are herded into the Roosevelt Room, where they wait. And wait. Asking questions. What is that red button? What was the most recent meeting here? Butler sits in a chair in front of a carved buffalo.
Hadiya Shields, 8, sits. Her feet don't reach the floor. She is wearing a pink dress with ruffles, white stockings and new silver shoes. Her hair is in curls. "I think we might see the president," she says quietly. "Because I think he's in there because that's probably why they closed the door."
The door opens. Obama walks in: "Hey, who are these people? Come on, guys." He ushers them into the Oval Office. He picks up Hadiya's little brother. He shakes the hand of Timothy.
Butler, at the end of the line, asks, "Can you see my heart beating?"
"I read that article, and you said such nice things, I thought it would be exciting to meet you," Obama tells the students, who are now awed and wide-eyed. "Any questions?"
The students stare. Stunned. Not knowing what to say.
Khalil asks where the president will watch the Super Bowl.
In the theater with war veterans, the president answers. He likes both teams, "but New Orleans has had a hard time since Katrina." If the Saints win, "that would be nice."
Elizabeth asks, "Is there something underneath the floor here?"
"I can't tell you that," Obama says. "That is a super-secret."
Ajani asks about the red button on the desk.
Obama explains: "If you press that button, the Secret Service would come in. . . . It's not a
nuclear button or anything."
The president sees Bo the dog outside the window and explains that one of the valets is handling
the famous pooch.
Nelson asks how Obama likes being president.
"Do you play sports?" Obama asks.
"I play a lot of sports. I swim."
"It's like swimming. After a couple of laps, the muscles are sore," Obama says. "But after you do more, you get used to it. After a few months, it seems like things are coming at you constantly. . . . It's still stressful, but like anything if you are in shape, you can handle it." The president gives them M&Ms. The boxes have the presidential seal on the outside and his signature.
In 25 minutes, the meeting is over. Their minds are blown. "It's something I will remember like forever," Butler says. Snow is falling. He covers his head
with his hood. And walks back out of the black iron gates of the White House.
IN AWE: President Obama greets Hadiya Shields, 8, in the Oval Office after she and other area students toured the White House.
(Bill O'leary/thewashington Post)