Sunday, June 13, 2010

A Wowser of a Ritual

Normally, I wouldn’t walk across the street to attend a high school graduation ceremony. Tuesday I gladly would have, but I couldn’t.

President Barack Obama came to nearby Kalamazoo as promised to speak at the ceremony honoring 282 graduating seniors from Kalamazoo Central High School. Central won the presidential visit in a contest to recognize the best school improvement program in the nation. No tickets were available to the general public.

The lead story in the Kalamazoo Gazette’s eight-page special section the next day said it this way: “Best. Commencement. Ever.” The section backed that claim with numerous photos of students, faculty, friends, and dignitaries, all laughing, clapping, or cheering wildly. One reporter said the students were “joyful and jubilant.” Actually, just about everyone involved was.

I did the next best thing to being here. I watched  on one of two regional TV stations that aired the two-hour proceedings.

As expected, Obama gave a masterful speech, urging the grads to take personal responsibility for their future success. He wowed the audience with humor, no-nonsense advice, and many local shoutouts, talking to students by name and mentioning area institutions.

Somewhat unexpectedly, the students stole the show. The Gazette quoted a graduate who summed that up: “I thought it was going to be about Obama, but it turned out to be about us.” The kids wowed me. They made it one of the most interesting programs I’ve seen on the tube in a long time.

One young lady, after receiving her diploma and an Obama handshake, asked for and got a presidential hug. That touched off a series of hugs, pats on the back, and personal comments from the President as the graduates filed by. He shook all 282 hands, some twice because he dropped in on a gathering of the seniors unannounced before the ceremony started and smoozed with them for 15 minutes.

The band had been practicing “Hail to the Chief” for nearly a week before the conductor was advised that only the U.S. Marine Corps Band was permitted to play that music when a President enters a room. The Central bandmaster said his group would switch to a customized version of “Pomp and Circumstance.” What I heard sounded suspiciously like a customized “Hail to the Chief” when Obama arrived. He looked just a tad startled.

The class valedictorian, a South Korean immigrant, struggled a little with a few parts of her talk. But she earned a standing ovation with a punch line punctuated by a huge grin and raised arms: “Less than four years ago I came to Kalamazoo and to America for the first time. Just look where I am now!”

The salutatorian, at 18 a speaker nearly as polished as Obama, said his goal was to be elected President of the United States. After Obama took the podium he told the young man, “I’m glad that, according to the Constitution, you can’t run until you’re 35. So I’ll be long gone by then.”

The observation in my May 13 post (Hey, Look Them Over) that many Americans are eager to see and hear a sitting President in person was verified. Despite a move to a 5,000-seat venue, there was no way for me to get a ticket. Administrators allocated all the tickets to seniors at the three district high schools, some other students, and a limited number of family and friends of the graduates.

The level of interest in the community was amazing. Every seat in three school auditoriums and a church viewing area was filled by individuals viewing the event on big-screen video. One lady drove from Decatur, Illinois, just to experience the togetherness of watching with a group, although she had no chance at a ticket to the actual ceremony.

No nastiness marred the occasion. Two small groups, one lobbying for an end to war and one for immigration reform, held rallies away from the Western Michigan University campus where the President spoke. Both were peaceful. Area Tea Party adherents, a group that might be expected to provide hecklers for an Obama appearance, declined to show up. A Gazette reporter quoted a spokesman as saying, “This shouldn’t be a political event on his part or ours. It’s the kids’ day and the families’ day, and they should be able to enjoy it without interference.”

Amen. After seeing those thrilled young people, I don’t regret for a moment missing what probably was my last chance to see and hear a sitting President in person. Those students earned their thrill of a lifetime, and they have many more years than I to enjoy the memory.

Sandy and I got one little thrill, though. About 9:15 p.m. huge sound waves drew our full attention as big helicopters roared directly over your house, something that never happened before. We figured the squadron escorting Mr. Obama would have left Kalamazoo about that time, so one of them might be Marine One. Marine One would be carrying the President of the United States to Grand Rapids where he was to board Air Force One for his return flight to Washington.

I got off my best recollection of what a snappy salute ought to be as the choppers passed over us. Heck, I thought, even if it wasn’t the commander-in-chief overhead, saluting some standout Marines was something I was proud to do.

News reports confirmed that Marine One was sighted leaving Kalamazoo minutes before 9:15 and heading north right toward our home. At least I now can claim to have saluted a President in person, even if I still haven’t seen one.

No comments: