KAOL students reflect on historic trip to D.C.
KINGMAN - The inauguration last week of President Barack Obama left millions worldwide staring at their TV screens, transfixed at the sight of history being made. For a brief moment, it seemed as though centuries of political and ethnic turmoil had been set aside, and all Americans were able to come together to witness the end of one era and the dawn of another.
But if you felt that way just from home or the office, imagine how the 27 students from the Kingman Academy of Learning middle school felt, watching the event as it actually happened, surrounded by well over a million fellow countrymen.
"It's hard to come up with words, because it's not about words, it's about feelings," said KAOL social studies teacher Jennifer Perea, who organized the trip with fellow teacher Rhonda Jantz. "The feeling there truly was one of unity, excitement, maybe a dream realized."
Unity had been one of the themes of Obama's campaign, and it was unity the students felt standing at the west side of the National Mall, watching the action on JumboTron television screens and listening as audience members nearby would call out responses while the newly-minted president spoke.
"The person standing next to me would shout 'Amen!' and 'Hallelujah!'" said student Elena Tassinari. "You knew we were all there to witness the same thing. I hadn't felt that connected with a large body of people in so long."
"It just felt amazing to be there," said another student, Aisha Subhan. "The energy just felt so great around us, and everyone was so happy, and celebrating something we've never seen before."
Even those students who admitted they would've rather seen Obama's Republican opponent, John McCain, win the election still applauded as the president completed the oath of office. Perea noted that many of the students who attended the trip were already quite politically cognizant, and the group comprised about a 50/50 split of Obama and McCain supporters.
"Everyone was very polite and ... there was just no negative energy at all," Perea said. "In the part of (Obama's) speech where he said we need to stand together as a nation ... that was the feeling there."
But the inauguration made up only a fraction of the students' five-day trip, and for many of them it wasn't even the most memorable part. The students spent much of their remaining time visiting Washington's host of museums and historical sites, from the resting place of President John F. Kennedy to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his "I Have a Dream" speech four-and-a-half decades earlier.
"I really liked the Lincoln Memorial," said student Mandy Workman. "Martin Luther King was right there giving his speech, and I was standing where he was."
"My favorite part was probably Mount Vernon, where we got to see George Washington's house and all his stuff, and we got to see down the hill to the Potomac River," said another student, Dillon Harris.
Workman was quick to point out that she and fellow student Sydney Gray also took their chance to hug a centuries-old tree that had been planted by Washington himself.
"We got to hug the tree, he planted the tree, and we were hugging it!" Workman said.
Gray and Tassinari agreed that their visit to Arlington National Cemetery was among the most memorable parts of the trip, from the silence they felt at the tomb of the Civil War dead to the precision of the National Guard troops guarding the Tomb of the Unknowns.
"I really enjoyed the changing of the guard, because they were so serious," Gray said. "Their footprints are like, stained into the pavement cause they've done it so many times."
"I definitely enjoyed Arlington also," Tassinari said. "Just standing on the hill seeing all the tombstones and feeling that realization ... of all the sacrifices. It's just like, 'Wow.'"
Three students, Alexa Russo, Nick Hillemeyer and Sana Khan, had the honor of presenting a KAOL wreath to be laid at the Tomb of the Unknowns on Jan. 18, but only after the then-president-elect stopped by to do the same, his motorcade passing within feet of the students.
"We saw him, we were 10 feet away, and Michelle (Obama) waved at me!" Tassinari said.
Another student, Dakota Estensen, was struck by the message evoked in the simple black granite of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and by the sight of all the people - the ones on the wall itself and the many who had come to lay eyes on it.
"The Vietnam Memorial just amazed me," Estensen said. "I couldn't believe that many people died in just that one war."
For Perea, nothing could top the chilling imagery of the Holocaust Museum, where each visitor stepped into the shoes of a Holocaust victim and followed them through each phase of the event, to the last days of the Final Solution. The visit was one of the hardest parts of the trip to get through for the students, but also one of the most eye-opening, from the pile of discarded shoes lining one floor, to an actual door taken from a Nazi gas chamber.
"The gas chamber door, that one took me away," Tassinari said. "It's hard to believe a human being is really capable of doing all that."
And that, perhaps, is why the day most memorable to Subhan was the day of the inauguration itself, contrasting the depths of humanity's capacity for hatred with its collective capacity for inclusion and hope, if only for a single day.
"As we were walking (to the Mall), you could feel the energy. You could see that on everyone's faces," Subhan said. "It's something we'll never forget."