It’s taking a while to sink in. And still, it hasn’t completely. It probably won’t until I’m 65 and alone watching the current President speak to me as a hologram in my living room. I’m not sure what the chances are, or if there even is a quantified percentage. Maybe you could divide the nation’s population by the total number of attendance for public appearances during a given presidency. But I got a C in Stat 201.
Nevertheless, why was I even given this opportunity? What had gotten me to this point? This question can be interpreted too many ways and I can find too many situations, so let’s just avoid it entirely. But really though, why me? Was it just because I was serving in AmeriCorps in a city the President was visiting, scheduled to speak in relevance to my work?
We’d waited outside for nearly two hours. But once through the secret service managed “airport like” security, it didn’t matter. Thirty feet from us, the Leader of the Free World, our President of the United States, the Barack Hussein Obama would take stage center and open himself to questions. Why was I in this gymnasium?
It still doesn’t feel real. And probably never will – at least until I’m taking my last breathe and all of life’s biggest important moments pass through my stream of consciousness one final time.
He was scheduled to come on at 2:15 pm. But, he was also scheduled to arrive in Columbia two and half hours before that. We had about an hour in the gymnasium to wait: the corps I belonged to the 500 or so other lucky souls who received an invitation.
In his last public appearance before he was set to address tens of thousands in Selma, Alabama on the Edmund Pettus Bridge to commemorate the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” with the heroes who peacefully stood against racial injustice, the President wanted to address the young leaders of today. So, he chose Benedict College. South Carolina was one of the three states he had yet to visit as President. Why not cross it off on his way further south? His foundational grass-roots organizing in this community aided a 2008 Democratic Primary victory, but he’d yet to send a personal thank you. Some felt abandoned as he had not been back since. I wasn’t one of them. I was just nervous to hear the man speak.
I suffer from bad anxiety sometimes. But, I didn’t have any reason to be anxious here. All I had to do here was sit and listen.
There he was, 2:15 pm sharp. After a few dignitaries – the school’s president, David Swinton, and longtime House Representative Jim Clyburn – made remarks, he strolled on out. Rolled up sleeves on a white button down. Tie firmly situated to its uppermost position in exquisite knot-form. Pressed pants. All encompassing a man. A normal person, just like you and me.
He thanked the citizens and state of South Carolina. He gave a five minute speech, then, us the floor. We asked questions, swapping turns by gender. Those who asked may have stuttered or rambled, but it didn’t matter – you were speaking to the President one-on-one - just you and him. He’d answer the question carefully and meticulously, and then move on to the next. This lasted about an hour.
During that hour, the spotlight made its way onto the AmeriCorps members serving in Columbia. After all, it was my understanding he was here to speak to us. I don’t know if it was intentional or just lucky, but we were given a chance to ask the President a question. Maybe we just stood out in the red. After a quick bout of rock, paper, scissors between two corps members deciding who would get to hold the mic, the president was asked how City Year and AmeriCorps can fulfill their role in the My Brother’s Keeper initiative set forth by his administration one year ago. Our question and his answer can be found here at the 37:00 mark: https://www.whitehouse.gov/photos-and-video/video/2015/03/06/president-obama-holds-town-hall-benedict-college
Shortly after, the forum ended. He exited via stage left, but, to my surprise, wasn’t finished just yet. Much to the dismay of his secret service agents, he offered himself to the crowd, outlined the stage and began shaking hands. People raced, pushed, and stumbled up to the front.
My slender 6’2” frame made it about three people away. I extended my right arm, leaning over others. He was right in front of me. He began shaking hands around mine until finally he had no choice. He probably shook 100 hands within that ten minute period. Mine was one of them. We locked eyes and shook.
“Keep up the good work.”
“Thanks, you too.”
Written by AmeriCorps member James Shahid