And there he was, the president of the United States, walking into the gymnasium at my old high school. That’s right, Barack Obama, the leader of the free world, was at McKinley High School this week in the middle of a cheering audience.
I bet many of the audience members never thought they would drive through “The Bottom” on purpose, park their cars on unfamiliar streets and set foot on McKinley’s campus. Man, it’s incredible what some people will do to see the most powerful man in the world, who happens to be black.
Yes, I mentioned his race and for good reason. This will not be a typical column. This is all about me, my blackness and my feelings about seeing Obama at my school. It’s about where I’m from.
This is not about politics. This is about seeing a man who could have bought two-for-a-penny butter cookies from the corner store near my house. He could have been with me and the boys at the Chicken Shack listening to music, talking stuff while gorging two-piece orders with two sides.
This is about my late grandmother, Annie Rose, and how I wish she could have been with me to see the president. I’m sure that after explaining to her that this was really “the Obama,” the black president everyone was talking about, that she probably would have wept tears drawn from a lifetime of pain and racism I could only imagine.
This is about my friend who sat out in the cold for 15 hours to get a ticket to see the president.
When Obama sauntered into my gymnasium a little after 10 a.m. Thursday, he was, as the late ESPN sportscaster Stuart Scott would say, “as cool as the other side of the pillow.”
He could have spoken nursery rhymes the whole time. My guess is that most of the people sitting there deep in the heart of “The Bottom” just wanted to see a man they never thought they would see in person.
Henry Essex, 91, a former principal of McKinley Junior High, said it was awesome. He has seen four former presidents and had “walked to within 10 feet of President Harry Truman.”
“This was something special, though. No, I never thought I would see him at McKinley. … Only Obama would have done this,” he said.
I don’t remember much about the president’s speech on Thursday. Like I said, I didn’t care. This wasn’t about politics. This was about the first black president walking on the same basketball court where I shot jump-shots and was forced to square dance.
It’s about me listening to people say this week, “Why would the president come to McKinley?” Well, it could be that the first black city councilman in Baton Rouge, first state representative in Baton Rouge, first African-American U.S. senator since Reconstruction, first African-American district court judge, first African-American woman to earn a doctorate in mathematics from LSU, the first woman to lead a college system in the U.S., the once all-time winningest coach in college football, all are graduates of McKinley High.
It could have been that McKinley High was the first public high school in the state funded to educate black children. Or maybe because, as the really old McKinley grads would tell you, “back in the day,” children came to my school from sugar cane and cotton fields by bus, train, taxi and ferry to get a high school education denied them in the nearby rural parishes where they lived.
This column is about growing up in elementary schools where my “new” books already had the names of four students from white schools written in them. This column is about teachers who spent extra time providing us with the material we needed to catch up.
This about the president of the United States coming to a school that right now is the truest picture of the country. There are now students at McKinley of all races and ethnicities from wealthy, middle-income and the poorest of the poor families. There are high-achieving gifted children, slightly above-average students and average students fighting their best to stay above water. This is America.
That’s my school, and President Obama was there Thursday.
Edward Pratt, a south Louisiana freelance writer, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.