Being surrounded by 1.8 million
people is both awe-inspiring and
humbling. That day was history, and
there I was, one dot in the sea of people,
witnessing it right in front of me.
January 20, 2009 in Washington D.C.:
21 degrees Fahrenheit, feels like 17.
Back in November on that
fateful, pending election day, Senator
Barack Obama from Illinois became
President-Elect Obama of the United
States of America. After over a year of
mudslinging, and political campaign
warfare, the fire had ceased, the votes had been counted and hope had officially been
restored in America. Weeks later, I received a letter in the mail, addressed to me from
LeadAmerica. I was invited to the 2009 Presidential inauguration and it was not a hoax.
I had been chosen from my high school along with a couple hundred students from across
the nation to participate in what could only be described as the opportunity of a lifetime.
Gathering all of the warm coats I had, December flew by as President-Elect
Obama prepared for his swearing in. Watching every political talk show I could find on
my TV guide, I followed Obama on his trail to the White House, and I waited impatiently
for the January 20 to near.
As the gears slowly switched between the outgoing and incoming presidents, the
week of the 20th finally came. Two flights and seven hours later, there I was in the
political heart of the country. Washington D.C, was like nothing I had ever seen.
Seeping with colonial simplicity and active city life, the bus drove me to the site of the
youth conference, right outside the capitol.
When you are in a room of four hundred strangers, consciously aware that not a single
person in there knows anyone else, it becomes strangely easy to make friends. From
upstate New York and Jersey to Houston, Texas
and Portland, Oregon, the conference was like a
condensed representation of the liberal United
States youth, gathered in one place for one
purpose. It was perplexing to think that each
person in there was in at least
one sense, just like me—politically intrigued,
steadfastly hopeful, and above all else,
ready for change.
For the next six days, we woke up at 6:00
ÅM and slept at 12:00 AM. All day we talked
politics, listened to guest speakers, made our own
policies, went sight-seeing, and conversed. The Jefferson Monument, Mount Vernon,
and the World War Two Memorial were among the few great symbols of history that we
visited that week. Congressmen and Senators came to enlighten us on the truth behind
earmarks, the ideals behind republican government , and the importance of a strong will
in getting through hardships in life.
But the real jewel of the trip was not guest speakers and white buildings. Policy
was interesting, but there was something bigger to look forward to. When the clock
struck twelve and January 19 turned into January 20, my new friends an I had been long
resolved to ―pull an all-nighter‖—maybe it was excitement or too much sugar at dessert,
but we had no plans of going to sleep that night. But two o’clock came around and we
were already in the lobby. We were on the buses by three and on-site at the National
Mall by six. Bleary-eyed and donning four thick layers of my warmest clothes, sleep
progressively looked more and more appealing.
But the real challenge was to be faced once we were in the National Mall.
Stepping off the buses was like needles in the air. They pinched at our skin under all of
the layers and the bite of the air remained a relentless reminder that 14 degrees
Fahrenheit is certainly not a match for a girl born and raised in Southern California.
Despite vain attempts, huddling for warmth does not do much when their bodies can’t
generate heat on their own anyways. It was too cold to sleep on the icy cold patches of
grass, and any nap lasting more than ten minutes was immediately interrupted by rushes
of frigid air and uncontrollable shivering.
The sun eventually came up, but with little merit to us. I continued reminding
myself: Stop and look around you. Look at who you are with, what you are doing, where
you are at. Everything was worth it.
The Mall filled up rapidly with anxiety, anticipation, and excitement. There was
an innate sense of respect among every person there. The space was comfortable and
remarkably spread out, not like the way those panoramic aerial-view pictures depict it
like some sort of metal concert storm of people pushing their way to the front. Looking
around, you knew every person there cared.
Relying on the jumbo-trons for an account of what was going on, we saw the motorcade
parading down the streets carrying all of Washington’s most important people, Obama
included. After introducing the most prestigious members of Washington, including the
Clintons, the former First Family, and Chief Justice John Roberts, it all came down to the
one moment that everyone had been vying for. On the screens in front of us, footage
from within the Capitol Building rolled displaying the Obama girls –Michelle, Sasha, and
Malia—preparing for their debut into the frigid D.C. air as the future First Family. Clips
flashed on sporadically showing Barack Obama and every on-screen show caused an
eruption n the crowd. The mere sight of him put tears in the eyes of some faithful
watchers beside me. He would flash a nervous smile, and every person out on the lawn
followed suit. With every eye fixed towards that looming white building, I could turn
around and see a thousand strangers immediately behind me, heads angled upward with
anticipation in their eyes.
And then it happened. The announcer’s voice rang clear through the National
Mall. ―Ladies and gentlemen, the president-elect, Barack H. Obama‖ All 1.8 million of
us held our breath for that following second until he emerged from the Capitol building.
The whole of us could only see his entrance by the jumbo-trons, but there was no dispute
that he had indeed stepped out in front of the world. His chin up, jaw set, he was
confident, showed calmness and undoubtedly prepared.
The crowd was on fire. What the announcer said next was muted to us, for the
screams and cheers and hooting and chants were like being at a rock concert. But as the
noise settled and the chants subsided, it quickly grew silent as the president-elect became
the President of the United States. The swearing-in and President Obama’s Inaugural
Address were awe inspiring. I felt like I was in a daze. All around me, I silently
observed and silently listened. A woman had her hands folded, pressed to her mouth,
staring up at the new president with a glisten in her eye. A young couple held close to
each other, squeezing each other’s hands, holding each other while listening intently. A
man could only keep his head down, bowed in prayer, looking up every once in a while
with tears streaming down his face.
The entire atmosphere was brimming with emotional responses and I myself
could not fight back tears as our President of the United States marveled at the progress
of our country and ―why a man whose father less than sixty years ago might not have
been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.‖
It was perfect in every sense.
Being there, as a part of it all,
is undoubtedly the most
important moment of my life.
When people talk about hope
and change and what Obama
has truly accomplished, you
need not to look further than
that day. Looking at the
hopeful faces of the people that
witnessed history alongside
me, it is self-evident that on
that day, we gathered ―because
we have chosen hope over fear
[and] unity of purpose over conflict and discord.‖
Forever in the hearts of the 1.8 million people in attendance and the millions of
other Americans who experienced it through their cubicles at work, their school
television sets, their home living rooms, and their local radio station, January 20, 2009
will be the day that America was changed. For me, that day represents something I am
proud to have been a part of. It is something I earned with my hard work, and something
that will be with me for the rest of my life when I tell my grandchildren’s children that ―I
(Shelby Yoshida is the granddaughter of Ron & Miye Yoshida. Parents: Ron & Kelly
Yoshida. Shelby is a junior at Northwood High School in Irvine, CA.)