By Sharon Lakey
On the morning of the swearing in of the 44th President of the United States, Danville senior Gabi Potts arose at 2:30 a.m. from her bed in the Marriott Conference Center in Washington D.C. At 4:30 she arrived at Union Station. She felt safe, but intimidated by the four Secret Service agents standing there with their assault rifles. At 5:30, she walked to a designated Silver Gate on 3rd street and presented her ticket.
Once inside the Mall Standing Area, she was nearly knocked over by Jesse Jackson, who was bustling to the ABC broadcasting booth. At 6:30 she had made her way to the front, near the right side of the Reflecting Pool. She elected to stand against a concrete barricade where she felt protected from the pressure of the crowd that was already beginning to flow into the area. During that walk she had tripped, skinned her knee, and lost and recovered a shoe.
At 5:30 a.m., Danville freshman Lauren Peterson arose from her bed at the Best Western in Tysons Corner, Virginia. At 6:30 she boarded a shuttle bus with other students in her group and was brought into the city. They were dropped at a point near the National Museum of the American Indian. After going through a security checkpoint at the Museum, similar to what airline passengers are sent through, they attended a hot chocolate reception.
But, as the time neared for the ceremony, her group of five decided they wanted to go into the crowd. Once more they cleared security and worked their way toward one of the Silver Gates. Having no tickets, they waited near the fence, surprisingly close to where Gabi was waiting. Lauren remembers feeling a strong sense of anxiety about what could happen; all the show of force in Washington made that possibility obvious. She could see where Barack Obama was standing, but the large crowd made actual viewing of the event impossible. Wanting to see and hear the ceremony, her group returned to the Museum to watch it on the Jumbo Tron.
Gabi felt a frightening surge in the crowd behind her as the ceremony neared. The fence and lack of tickets were no longer an impediment; the people simply moved forward, and the fence was gone. But she stood her ground, one of two million who were there to personally witness the swearing in of America’s first African-American President. “I could see his silhouette from that distance, his hand raised for the oath,” she said.
Lauren remembers that moment as one of silence, a stopping, a collective holding of the breath. “A perfect moment,” she said. “All of our history of division was behind us, and we were looking into the future. And there was hope.”
Gabi describes the sound that followed after his hand dropped. “People cried and screamed. Words like, ‘finally’ and ‘yes we can’ and ‘thank you.’ It was a passionate and natural outpouring of emotion that rose all around me.”
“We felt like one family, not separated,” said Lauren.
The moment that had brought people of all ages and colors to the White House was over quickly. Gabi remembers that many turned after the oath and began crossing back over the lawns, not even staying to hear President Obama’s speech. They had come for one reason–to watch with their own eyes the defining instant when America became truly a land of opportunity for all.
The girls arrived in Washington on January 17, Lauren by air and Gabi by land, to participate in the activities planned by each of their respective student groups. Gabi’s group, The Presidential Classroom consisting of 350 students, was housed in the city; Lauren’s group, The National Young Leaders Student Conference consisting of 7,300 students, was housed outside the city.
Gabi’s agenda included student caucuses, tours to Mount Vernon, the Jefferson Memorial and the Pentagon Memorial, which honors the 184 dead from 9/11. It also included speaking appearances by two well-known men: Dr. Ed Smith and former President Clinton. “For three days we were surrounded by Secret Service agents and didn’t even know it,” she said. “It was all in preparation for President Clinton.” After the inauguration, a celebratory ball helped her group relax and enjoy each other’s company in lovely clothes and a feeling of multicultural good will.
Lauren’s agenda was different from Gabi’s. “There was less time in the classroom,” she said. There was more touring: the Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, Jefferson Memorial and the Capital Building. A trip down the Potomac on a dinner cruise was an outstanding moment for her. “I guess we must have been a terrorist risk, because the boat was crawling with guards,” she said. Her speakers included such luminaries as Colin Powell, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former Vice President Al Gore. On the Lincoln Memorial steps she saw a performance that included Stevie Wonder, U2, Garth Brooks, Sheryl Crow, Bruce Bringstein, WILL.I.AM, Usher and Beyonce. Her celebratory ball was held at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum where she enjoyed dinner and was treated to a performance by Daughtry.
Both girls were thoroughly entertained by The Capital Steps, a group who bills themselves as “the Washington-based troupe of Congressional staffers turned songwriters. We put the MOCK in Democracy.” “I bought all three of their CDs,” said Gabi with a mischievous smile.
They returned from their trip by car on Friday, driven by Lauren’s mother. It was a long 10-hour trek that inched them along the clogged highways and bridges that President Obama speaks of in his plan to rebuild America’s infrastructure.
There was the usual letdown from the shining moment they experienced firsthand, but the trip gave them time to unwind and reflect on their experiences. “A huge hurdle has been overcome,” said Gabi. “There’s a lot of pressure on him. I worry about that.
To view photos of Lauren and Gabi, click here
To view photos in Gabi’s D.C. album, click here
This article was first published in the January, 2009, issue of the North Star Monthly