News reporter Pam Schehl interviewed three students who were there: D.J. Brandt, Conor Croswell and Hannah Gamble.
MOUNT VERNON — Mount Vernon eighth-graders agree — it was the trip of a lifetime. Roughly 200 MVMS students — plus chaperones — spent two days in Washington, D.C., and were there for the historic swearing in of Barack Obama, the first African-American president of the United States.
Although there are probably at least 200 interesting and informative stories about the trip, the News talked with three students who were there: D.J. Brandt, Conor Croswell and Hannah Gamble.
On Day One, Jan. 19, the students, divided into groups and visited various museums on the National Mall, including the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, the Smithsonian Natural History Museum, the National Gallery of Art, the American History Museum and the National Archives.
Croswell said, “When I first heard we were going to the mall I thought it would be like Polaris, but no, it’s just grass, which is kind of nice. There were vendors everywhere. Stuff you could buy in the museum, pieces that were made in a factory, you could buy outside that were handmade for 10 bucks less.”
Hannah said she was in awe of the Smithsonian museums. “Monday we went into the castle at the Smithsonian,” she said, “and it was enormous. We went in and there was a gift shop. ... We went down a level and it looked like a shopping mall, but it wasn’t. You went down this hall and it had all kinds of pieces of art that were made by famous people. There was this one dress that looked like it was made out of plastic.”
Like many of the other students, Gamble, who has never been to a similar museum, enjoyed the spaceships in the air and space facility. The size was a little intimidating, she said. “Walking into it was like they were putting magnifying glasses in front of your eyes. ... It was a really busy day, but it was worth it. ”
Brandt said his favorite museum was the Air and Space Museum. “I love planes and it was amazing to see how many planes were there and how big they were,” he said. “They had old-time planes like the Wright brothers’ plane. They had little midget planes and they had rocket ships. They were huge.”
While at the American History Museum, a group of students encountered a George Washington re-enactor. The students mentioned they were from Mount Vernon, Ohio, and Washington told them he lived in Mount Vernon, too.
After lunch, the groups took a walking tour of Arlington National Cemetery and saw the changing of the guard, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the Kennedy grave site.
“I liked Arlington Cemetery,” Brandt said. “You see all these crosses and you think, ‘how big is this place?’ It seems never-ending. ... My great-uncle is buried there. His name is Ralph Hart. Seeing all those white crosses made me feel bad because all those people died. But then again, I was thinking about it more, and I felt more and more proud knowing that we’re all loved by them, because they died for us. All of those people died for our country and all those people gave their lives just for us to get freedom. Just for us. Lots of people.”
Gamble added, “Once you’ve been there, you take on a different appreciation for all the people who have died in service and all the presidents that have been in there and presidents that have been assassinated. You just take on a whole different perspective.”
Monday evening the students visited or drove by other memorials. “I liked seeing the Capitol building, “ said Brandt. “I didn’t go inside it, obviously, but it was so huge. I liked it because a lot of history has been made there and it’s huge. I see it all the time on TV on movies and on ‘National Treasure,’ but it’s nothing like you see on the movies. It’s like you’re really actually seeing it for the first time.”
Brandt also liked the Washington Monument. “It was huge. I’ve never seen anything that tall in my life. I’ve never, ever, ever seen anything that tall.” He didn’t like it after dark, though. He explained, “At night it has red lights, like horror-movie eyes. It’s creepy. I don’t like tall things, and when I went over by it, I thought to myself, ‘Oh my gosh. I don’t want to go near it’. But I had to. Every time I looked up it made me really kind of dizzy.”
“I liked the Pentagon,” Brandt said. “The Pentagon was cool. We didn’t go inside it, but we got to see it. It’s really big and it’s where the Marines and other military headquarters are. They had memorial benches made for the people who died there (on 9/11), and there were lot. They were for children, men and people that died in the plane on the ground inside there.”
Brandt also enjoyed his first exposure to escalators on one of his stops. “The escalators. I love escalators,” he enthused. “I’ve never been on an escalator before. Escalators, ahhh, and the glass elevator in the (Pentagon City Shopping) mall.”
Overnight accommodations were at the Country Inn and Suites in Fredericksburg, Va.
Croswell was in a group that actually made it onto the National Mall for the Tuesday inauguration ceremonies, finding a spot in front of the Washington Monument. “We got in right before it closed,” he said. “At first we had a five-foot circle around us that was like our space. But people kept coming and jumping barricades and we had to stand up eventually.
“There were about 75 percent African-American people around us. There was one lady, Bernice, who was really nice. She actually marched with Martin Luther King, and she was so overwhelmed during it (the inauguration) she had to sit down. She felt like she was going to pass out. She was right next to us. There were at least three other people who were with Dr. Martin Luther King when he marched. They had all their own stories about everything, and it was just amazing. Some of the people told me what it was like when they were kids. And it just amazed me how they were treated like that when they were kids (under Jim Crow laws) and now we’ve got one (an African-American) that’s a president. There was this one person who was 75 years old or something. And it just amazed me how in that short a period of time we’ve actually gone from segregation and blacks being treated like that to we have an African-American president.”
“We couldn’t see the actual swearing in,” Croswell continued, “but we could see the jumbotrons. It was like we were right next to it. The only problem was when the sound got out of sync with the picture, because they were talking and you heard the words maybe a two-second interval afterwards. ... I wish they had cut the fanfare just a little bit shorter. We were standing there for at least three hours. They’d do the all fanfare thing and you’d be like, ‘finally he’s coming out – nope, someone else.’ That happened about eight times and you’re thinking, ‘just get it over with already.’”
The students said there was a lot of “Bush dissing” and booing when the former president arrived, and they didn’t think that was appropriate. “I don’t really think that he did a very good job,” said Croswell, “But I don’t think he deserved that.”
Although many of the students felt like sardines because of the crowds, they felt safe. Croswell said there were visible “snipers” or security personnel on each roof, and there were plenty of law enforcement officers and National Guardsmen doing crowd control. “ We felt completely safe,” he said, “because I don’t think any one around was going to do anything. Everyone who got in the National Mall was there because they wanted the new president to be there.”
Croswell said being at an inauguration gives a person a different view of things and of how other people feel. “I know I have my opinion, and now I know a bunch of other people’s opinions,” he said. “The inauguration was amazing. I was feeling like, ‘hmmm, I wonder.’ And I sort of pinched myself at least three times. ‘OK, I’m not dreaming.’ I didn’t really believe that I was actually there. Even if it had been McCain who had won and I had been there, I still would have done the same thing just because I couldn’t believe I was at any inauguration at all. It was just astounding.”
Gamble agreed. “You don’t get all the other people’s stories when you just watch something like that on TV and you don’t get the same feeling.”
“I know everybody felt really, really sad (about segregation and Martin Luther King),” Brandt said, “and really, really happy because of what happened. We used to have slavery and now we have an African-American for a president.”
Tuesday evening featured a dinner cruise aboard the Spirit of Washington. “The cruise was neat,” Gamble said. “We went up on the top level and the view was amazing. I’ve never, ever been on a boat before.” The cruise also featured what the students termed their own inaugural ball, complete with President Obama — in the form of a cardboard cut-out. Middle school principal Bill White said the students so enjoyed “dancing with the president” that the ship’s crew gave them the cutout as a gift. The president now has a place in the Mount Vernon Middle School office.
All three of the students were grateful for the opportunity to visit the nation’s capital, and said they would never have been able to go if the school had not sponsored the trip. Fundraisers, community support and a donations from Ariel Corp. helped fund the excursion.
Brandt, Croswell and Gamble would all encourage others to go to D.C.
“If you ever get the chance, you need to take it and go. People might think that they have gotten the perspective of everything that’s in Washington, D.C.,” said Hannah, “but being there and seeing it for yourself and not in a picture puts it in a different perspective.”
Brandt concurred. “Even if it’s not an [inauguration]. Everything was really historic, really old. Everything was stone and huge. Everything there was huge. You could not go anywhere and not see something that was huge.”
“If you have a chance to go there,” said Croswell, “go there.”
The chaperones also enjoyed the trip, but were glad to be back home after shepherding students through millions of other people. White said, “Now I know how a mother chicken feels trying to get her brood across a four-lane highway.”