Author: Caroline Lee
I was in Washington DC on January 20, 2009. I felt the cold air of the city, as well as the excitement. I saw all of the patriotic symbols and event memorabilia being sold in the distance. I was one person among the colossal crowd; I heard newly-elected President Obama give his Inaugural speech. I was at the most extraordinary Presidential Inauguration in this country’s history…and I didn’t get to see it.
But that was the ending half of the trip. It all began a few days earlier, when a small group of students from Vallejo got onto a plane. Each one had signed up with Smithsonian Student Travel, months before, to witness the swearing-in of the first African American President. I was one of those students and, like everyone else, I was eager to glimpse a part of history.
We left SFO in the darkness of early morning and landed in Miami, Florida without any mishaps. Our second flight took off an hour later; we arrived in Washington DC as the sun set.
The first thing that struck me as I stepped out of the airport’s sliding doors was the cold. Or, rather, the comfort of the cold. Used to the warmer weather of California, I was surprised when the below-zero air enveloped me. However, I was also ready: my teachers had threatened to leave any or all of us behind if we didn’t dress appropriately. In this case, “appropriately” meant coats, triple layers of shirts, long underwear under jeans, boots, and much more. With all those layers, the frosty weather seemed to greet me, instead of eating me alive.
After we were welcomed by the cold, we traveled to our hotel, a Courtyard by Marriott in Maryland, where we learned that we were going to share our trip, and bus, with a group of students from Los Angeles. Although it could have gone badly, both sides of the student spectrum were welcoming and, needless to say, the trip became more fun.
Over the next few days, our group visited many sites around Washington DC—including the National Archives, Arlington Cemetery, the World War II Memorial, and Mount Vernon. Seeing all of those locations gave me a new feeling of pride and respect for the country that I grew up in: even through all the differences of opinion and culture, Americans were able to come together, time and again, to help one another, for the betterment of their futures.
The twentieth of January arrived in a flurry of sound, anticipation, and sleep deprivation: we got up around three a.m., and headed to the line for the Inauguration-viewing. However, after five hours of waiting, we realized that we were in the wrong place; horrified, everyone tried to get out of the line, which had morphed into a crowd, as quickly as possible. We headed to the end of the National Mall, getting separated into smaller groups along the way. My little group managed to get half-way up a hill, until we were stopped by the sheer number of people packed into the space. Unfortunately, the hill we were on faced the National Monument—the opposite direction of where the Inauguration was taking place.
I was at President Obama’s Inauguration; however, I didn’t actually see it. Nevertheless, I was there and for that, I am supremely grateful. Only through being prepared for extreme weather and having openness to new people did I have the chance to be part of the story. Although I didn’t actually witness it, I gained new understanding and lived through history. It’s more than enough for me.