The importance of President Barack Obama’s visit to Baton Rouge was clear from the time he walked into McKinley High School’s gymnasium Thursday to the 20 students selected by lottery to hear him speak.
“It was like, ‘Whoa, we’re in the same room with the most powerful man in the universe,’ ” said Dion Sideboard, 15, a 10th-grader.
The 20 students were spectators, along with the more than 1,000 adults lucky enough to get a seat in the audience.
Another McKinley student, who had been chosen by the principal to introduce the president, was standing when he walked in, and she made an immediate impression.
Che’dra Joseph, McKinley’s student of the year, introduced the president and then told her story, how she persevered despite a life of unspecified hardship and is now committed to devoting her adult life to helping others who are “marginalized.”
“I am here in spite of, not because of, my circumstances. I have defied the statistics,” Joseph said. “And I will not falter in my aspirations to dismantle the glass ceilings imposed on women, people of color and minorities.
Joseph, 17, whose mother is white and father is black, was implicitly comparing her story to Obama’s famous story of a mixed-race kid raised by a single mom and an absentee father who inexplicably went on to become president of the most powerful nation on Earth.
“As a representative of McKinley High School, Baton Rouge and Louisiana, I offer our president the gratitude for giving America a nontraditional model of success that proves adversity does not restrict opportunity and for choosing McKinley High School to make history,” Joseph said in conclusion.
Upon taking the stage, Obama gave Joseph a hug and immediately asked the audience to give “Che” a round of applause.
“I was backstage. I asked her, ‘Are you nervous?’ She said, ‘No, I got this. I’m fine,’ ” the president recalled. “That is a serious leader of the future. And we are so proud of her.”
Hours later, Joseph was still amazed at the series of events.
“It’s been exhilarating. It’s like I’m here, but I’m not,” she said. “I’m trying to get over the fact that the president called me by my nickname, not once but twice, and gave me a hug twice.”
The rest of McKinley High’s 1,400 students had a more distant encounter with the president, watching his speech and question-and-answer session in class via a live feed.
Even so, it was a memorable experience, and students were still talking about the historic visit afterward.
Clarice Preston, 15, a ninth-grader, said she followed Obama’s motorcade’s journey online in Jamari Tillman’s world geography class until they could look out the window and see it for themselves.
“As they pulled in, I said, ‘There goes Obama y’all,’ and Mr. Tillman started crying, and I was like, ‘Oh my God,’ ” Preston said.
The 20 students who did get inside the gym were the envy of their peers. Their names were announced on the school intercom Wednesday at noon after the student government association conducted a lottery.
“I had some who said, ‘I hate you,’ ” said Briauna Hopkins, 18, a senior, “but I had so many who said, ‘Bri, I’m so happy for you.’ ”
Joseph was not the only McKinley student to enjoy the spotlight.
Tenth-grader Jasmine Elliott, 15, was called upon by the president.
“What are your plans to do when you leave office?” she asked him but then threw in another question. “And can you please give my grandmother a hug?”
Laughing, Obama agreed to the hug. To the other question, the president said that he and his wife, Michelle, would continue post-presidency to focus on issues they consider important, including political involvement for young people, improved education — especially in science — international development and reform of the criminal justice system.
Byron Hall raised his hand in hopes of being called by the president to no avail: “I was going to ask a tough one.”
Hall, however, had a memorable day, anyway. The senior at Broadmoor High School in Baton Rouge was invited to Thursday’s event personally by East Baton Rouge Parish Superintendent Warren Drake, who saw him speak in November and came away impressed.
Hall said he was impressed by how Obama had quick answers and often a joke for every question and made him want to read more books, he said.
“He’s a very witty man,” Hall said. “I like that in a leader.”
Hall managed to shake Obama’s hand afterward and obtain a blurry selfie with him. He may have caught the political bug, as well.
“Being a politician, that would be awesome. I might actually want to do that,” Hall said. “Maybe become a senator and move up from there. Start small, helping out my community.”