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A change in attitude
Looking ahead: William Butler, who dropped out of school in sixth grade, is working on his GED now, inspired by the
man in the White House. (Linda Davidson/the Washington Post)
Adults kept telling them: "There is finally a man in the White House who looks like you."Their parents emphasized repeatedly: The election of Barack Obama was "historic! Historic! HISTORIC!" The comments seemed too enormous to grasp for young people who hadn't lived through segregation, the civil rights movement, the black-is-beautiful movement and the start of affirmative action. But a year after the inauguration, there is evidence that the election has had an effect. The signs are neither big nor quantifiable, but subtle and not extending to everyone. Some still wonder what the big deal is. For others, though, change came in lessons at school, on television. Admonitions to do something. Be somebody. Help somebody. Obama became a verb. Obama became someone to emulate. Suddenly, what was impossible seemed doable. Here are a few of these stories.
A cold rain is falling as William Butler waits to catch a bus near 14th Street and Columbia Road in Northwest
Washington. There is no shelter at this stop. Butler, tall and wearing a blue jacket, is standing alone near the curb. He grips a plastic Safeway bag and steps back as one bus after another pulls to a stop.
"If we take the 52, we can see the front of the White House," Butler says. "If we take the 54, we can see the side." The buses pull away one behind the other. Butler hurries to catch the 52.
Each weekday, he rides the bus from his GED program, south on 14th Street. Sometimes, it takes him two hours to reach his temporary home in Southeast. Butler carries a somber determination as he rides through this Washington every day to the other Washington, the one sometimes neglected and misunderstood. He does not come from a place of opportunity. His mother never lined up for free tickets to take a White House tour. There are some places in this city he has never been to.
Butler takes a seat near the front. Through the window, Butler thinks he can see the White House in the distance, standing amid the gray buildings of Washington that symbolize the city's power.
"I ride past the White House on the bus every day. I think: 'Wow, a black man is there. I wonder what is he doing up in there.' "
He has never pressed the vertical bar to beckon the bus driver to stop so he can get out, walk the two blocks to the White House and look through its black iron gates.
He admires Obama, listens to all his speeches. Feels that Obama is talking directly to him. Sometime during the campaign, it hit him: Butler decided to go back to school and get his GED. "I don't have words for it," he says. "It's immeasurable. I believe I can do anything I want. I want to go to college."
His life has been complicated. His grandmother raised him, his sister, his brother and the three other boys his mother had. "She could handle us in her day, but her day came and gone," says Butler, now a student at YouthBuild, a public charter school.
He dropped out of school in sixth grade, he is saying. Sixth grade? you say. Are you serious?
"Serious as a heart attack. I started selling drugs. I used to be out all day and night. Everybody said school would pay off in the long run, but I wanted to get paid in the moment. My grandmother took care of us. My mom was a drug addict. My dad been dead since I was 2. I got the death certificate. He was murdered."
It's a common story in Washington, a common tragedy, as if tragedy could be common. Generations of tragedy piled one on top of the other; few escapes, few role models, few rising to the top.
"I wished I would have stayed in school," Butler says. "But when I dropped out, no teachers, no principals, nobody came to the house."
Now he lives in a shelter on the grounds of St. Elizabeths Hospital, on Martin Luther King Boulevard. He is so eager to go to school each day, he wakes at 5 a.m., without regret.
"I don't know what to do if I don't go to school." YouthBuild gives its students $10 a day for lunch. Butler has found a way to stretch the money. "I go to Safeway and buy these 10 for $10." He opens the bag and shows boxes of frozen pizza.
Sometimes when he is on the bus, he passes the White House, but he doesn't turn around. "Sometimes I don't look at it. I know it does affect my life. He fights for a lot of stuff. I feel like one of the millions of faceless."
The bus moves farther down 14th. "That's it, right?" No, that's the Treasury Building. "Can we get out?" Butler presses the vertical bar, summoning the driver to stop.
The bus stops, at 14th and New York Avenue, splashing water against the curb. Office workers scurry along on their evening commutes. Butler has never walked the sidewalks of this part of town. He passes the Willard Hotel.
He passes the Treasury Building. "I thought the White House was so massive that it could be on two or three blocks. I thought this was the White House for real. When he reaches the White House, he stops in front of the iron gates. He pulls down his Dallas Cowboys knit hat. You can see gray hairs growing in his sideburns. He is 22.
He won't touch the gates. "It's not electric or anything? I'm still not going to touch it. They might think I'm trying to get in there." He just stands there and looks.
"I feel like I have shoes to fill."
In Bolton Hill, a historic neighborhood in Baltimore, Meshelle Foreman Shields gathers her children around the dining room table. The oldest, 8-year-old Hadiya Shields, says she likes "seeing little brown girls like me in the White House."
Hadiya, who lives with her little sister and little brother and mom and dad, sees her own family when she looks at the White House. "My dad is president of his own company, and my mom's name is Meshelle, and my mom has black hair, too. . . . Sasha used to be the same age as me."
Her mother, who is 40, says: "For the first time, my kids could identify with who was occupying the White House. It was a raw emotion. My younger daughter asked whether she could go play with them and have a sleepover. They said to their dad, 'Baba, you are as smart as Barack Obama. You could move to the White House when they are finished.' "
Raising the bar
Between classes at Wakefield High School in Arlington, three seniors are sitting in the teachers' lounge. You can hear the clink of dishes in the cafeteria next door. The clock in the room moves silently as the students try to explain the effect of the first black president on them. They haven't just seen Obama on television; it was from Wakefield that Obama gave his back-to-school motivational speech in September.
They each have a story about the speech. What they heard. What stayed with them.
"He went around to shake hands of people he could reach," says Elizabeth Lyon, 17, a senior. She has long blond hair. "In the pictures, you could see huge smiles. Like these huge, unattractive smiles."
"It was like you were witnessing history," says Nelson Canales, 17, a senior.
Months after, the words seemed to linger.
"It was in my head with all the senioritis. Like you really don't feel like doing anything, at least for me," says Lyon. "I get into this mode, like colleges will see" that the president visited her school, so she must stand out. "I probably should do this -- like studying for a test even though I think I know everything, which I don't. Or writing a second draft of an essay. Stuff like that. An extra push, actually trying to do your best."
"Like you had to do this," adds Timothy Spicer, 17, the senior class president. He is wearing a plaid shirt. His hands are clasped and he is sitting near a window. He has the focus of a student leader.
"He wasn't like guilting you into doing anything, but he was saying this is your responsibility to do well," Lyon says.
"He was saying your country needs you," Canales recalls. "I'm not the type of guy who does a lot of work. I am somewhat motivated for school. But I think a lot of things he said motivated me even more. . . . I've been going to see teachers at lunch like every single day."
To whom much is given, much is expected.
"A lot changed after introducing him," Spicer says. "I felt like there was this expectation of perfection from me. Teachers were like -- say, if I did something slightly wrong or as a senior I make a slight mistake, and they would be like: 'What would Obama say?' "
Lyon agrees: "My parents would say, 'You can't let Obama down. He chose your school.' "
Thinking big: Khalil Parker ran for student body president at John Henson French Immersion School after being
inspired by President Obama's election. (Mark Gail/Washington Post)
In Temple Hills, Khalil D. Parker gets off the school bus and runs a block home, racing with his little brother. His mother sees him coming up the street and waits at the door. Khalil sweeps in, drops his green and black cricket backpack. He is excited. He wants to change the world. He can't wait to tell his mother.
To start, he will run for president of the student body at John Hanson French Immersion School in Oxon Hill. His mother is surprised because Khalil has never mentioned this before. Khalil, a thin kid with brown eyes and pudgy cheeks, is more of a behind-the-scenes kid.
And yet Khalil, 11, is undeterred. It's September, and Khalil says there was something about the new president that has inspired him to be better, to work on "telling the truth." He sometimes told little fibs before, his mother says, but no longer.
He says he is running for school president "because President Barack Obama wanted to make a change for the world. I'm going to try to make a change for my school." He wants more recycling and after-school clubs. He wants children to stop fighting each other. He sits at the kitchen table in his school uniform -- blue polo and khaki pants -- and he starts writing.
He swings his legs. Nothing seems too much for him now. In fact, he's working on a book, the second he's written. "My first book is an affirmation that me and my mom recite," Khalil says.
Khalil translated the book -- illustrated and self-published by his mother -- into French. His mother sold it at school and at church, and she gave copies to strangers walking down the street. The book says, in part: "I am somebody. I am a child of God, from great kings and mighty queens. Mother Africa is where they trod. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. I can move mountains with my mind and cast them into
A few weeks later, Khalil wins the school election. During his acceptance speech, he tells his classmates: "Just because I'm president doesn't mean that I can change everything, such as changing the water fountains to soda fountains, but we can try to find ways to have more after-school clubs and sports teams. I will do my best."
When pride is personal
Wearing a red T-shirt and red cap, Ajani Thomas is sitting in his living room in Northwest Washington, sorting through the pencil sketches he made of Obama during the election season, some of which he sold at a neighborhood fundraiser for the campaign. The sketches show a chiseled Obama merging with Martin Luther King Jr.; Obama contemplating; Obama and his daughters, with a quote from one of the president's letters: "I want our children to go to schools worthy of their potential -- schools that change them, inspire them, and instill a sense of wonder about the world around them."
Ajani, an aspiring filmmaker, says the election gave him a deeper understanding of history. At 12, he is vacillating between childhood and the teen years. His voice is getting deeper. "I thought, I've always heard these stories of these great African American heroes and these great blacks in our society that have changed the world, but I never really understood what they meant," says the seventh-grader at Washington Latin Public Charter School. "But now I can tell my children I lived through the first black president. This changed me. I felt proud to be African American.
"I did feel proud before, but it was a different pride. After all the stories, I never really got it. Now I do and I feel even prouder."
DRAWN TO OBAMA: A sketch of the president by 12-year-old Ajani Thomas. (Ajani Thomas)
A lesson slowly sinks in
Long after the dismissal bell at Einstein High School in Wheaton, an after-school club is meeting in a room down a long corridor. The teacher passes out a snack of crackers and cheese. The students push their desks in a circle to talk about the president.
Jean Mendozo, 15, a 10th-grader, tries to understand the question: How has Obama changed their lives? If it were an essay question in English class, she would put words to paper, but this is an after-school program and her real answer is: "We are not out in the real world. We don't know adult opinions."
She folds her legs beneath her and adds: "I liked the speech he gave us in school. Did Bush give us a speech?"
President George W. Bush "gave us 'No Child Left Behind,' " says Kevin Pajarillaga, also 15 and a 10th-grader, who says he is from the Philippines, Spain and China.
The other students grumble about all the tests they must take as a result of "No Child Left Behind."
They say they saw Obama's taped speech to students. Jean felt that he was speaking to the kids directly. Like he understood them. Like no other president. Like he cared about them: "He said, 'Don't give up.' "
Kevin interrupts: "I have a friend who goes to school with the Obama kids."
"If I were one of the girls," Jean says, "I would be worried: 'Do you like me for me? Or because I'm the president's daughter?' Nobody wants fake friends."
"They must be stressed-out," says Neha Khan, 15, another 10th-grader.
The students say the Obama presidency hasn't really changed the cafeteria, the school setting that is the demographic equalizer. Blacks still hang out with blacks. Whites with whites. Some people mix it up. "I admit I sit with my kind, Filipinos," says Jean. "That doesn't mean we don't like people of other races, but we relate. I have black friends. Before I moved here, I lived in Langley Park. My best friend was black and white. I was the Asian."
Eric Trinh, 15, who is from Vietnam, is quiet. "My aunt goes to the White House every two weeks," he says. "She told me [Obama] uses sophisticated words during speech and out of school."
Among the students, there seems to float a mixture of awe and confusion. They are still trying to figure things out.
Jean watched Obama's education speech in September. And those words stayed with her. "At times, I was really stressed out" about school, she says. "I would want to leave school badly. Then it did hit me. He said, 'Don't give up.' It was in my head after hearing the speech."
The after-school buses will soon arrive. The students push their chairs back into straight lines. Pack up their books. And disappear into the hallway. And it feels as if they will not fully comprehend how this presidency has affected them until far in the future. Perhaps when they are 30 or so, when they reach back in memories and define those experiences that shape a life. Perhaps the meaning of this time will be clearer in hindsight, when the fog of youth is lifted.