I have been blessed with (or cursed with, depending on the situation) what I lovingly refer to amongst my friends and associates as a “scary memory.” And it’s only through conversations with these very friends and associates that I’ve realized it exists in the first place.
It turns out most 35-year-olds can’t remember things like their first day of kindergarten. I remember mine vividly. Miss Ruiz, bespectacled, raven-haired, and wearing a long-sleeved yellow sweater, threw the doors open to Harrison Elementary School in the cool morning shade along Magoun Ave. and beckoned forth to the sea of young-still-clutching-parents humanity to come forward and begin their thirteen year process of knowledge instillment.
Later that year, during a lull in instruction time, I remember goofing-off at my round table shared by three classmates by pretending to fall out of my chair repeatedly. Never shying away from being the center of attention (am I sounding familiar to any of you now?), the laughter I received from my classmates each time I tipped backwards and allowed my wooden chair to clatter onto the hard tile floor was addictive.
Imagine my horror, then, when I looked up from the floor after one of my theatrical tumbles to see my father, wearing a cyan-colored windbreaker, standing just outside the nearby ground-floor classroom window, frozen completely still. His wardrobe-matched eyes beamed angrily at me from behind his glasses through the drizzle-streaked pane. It seems my father decided to check up on his son after visiting my grandmother across the street, and caught me precisely at one of my less-than-studious moments. Cue indefinite end to chair comedy routine.
I remember quite clearly the process of learning everything you’re supposed to learn as a kid in elementary school – and yes, while firmly planted in my seat. I remember colors and numbers and shapes passing under the black rubber tip of pointer. I remember construction paper icons of leaves, shamrocks, and eggs being stapled to a calendar to tell the passage of time, and marking holidays of note.
When President’s Day rolled around, I remember learning about our early forefathers. George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson – their line art caricatures looked down nobly upon us from their thumbtacked home upon the bulletin board as we snacked on butter cookies and sipped upon curious orange drink.
Those presidents were untouchable to the six-year-old me. Surely, they were infinitely wise, more noble than I could ever dream of being, with every situation always under control. The mere idea of these men made me feel safe and secure beyond question. That feeling initiated my overall personal idea of what a president is supposed to provide for his or her country – an unquestionable feeling of safety and security. That they’d always have it under control even in the worst of situations.
In my adolescence and young adulthood, I was far from a politico. I didn’t have many opinions in high school as to what was going on with our appointed leaders. I didn’t really keep tabs of strife in the Gulf. In fact, I can remember being old enough to vote, but still questioning how one decided whether they were a Republican or a Democrat.
Admittedly, and regretfully, I passed on voting in the first presidential election I was eligible for (you remember, that infamous one in 2000 between Bush and Gore that came down to Florida deciding it all), mainly because of apathy. To me, Bush and Gore couldn’t have been further from anything I could identify with as an eighteen-year-old Columbia College student, and the thought of going in the voting booth and hitting a button “just because” seemed reckless and destructive to me. While I voted in the next election between Kerry and Bush, I still felt very alienated from the entire process. Those guys weren’t like anyone I knew in real life, and I wasn’t sure they fit my definition of those wise and noble guys I learned about in Miss Ottman’s kindergarten class.
In 2008, I learned about a man with a funny-sounding name who was running for president that completely changed all that. Barack Obama, from my very own hometown of Chicago, was poised to be the very first black president of the United States. Growing up (and to this day), the majority of my friends were black or hispanic by default. Finally having someone in the presidential running who was just like them, who knew first hand of the issues that they and their families struggled with in a lower-middle class city like ours was quite remarkable.
Having a candidate of a minority race in the mix, of course, wasn’t reason enough to decide that Obama should be president. That (in addition to his platform on heath care, funding for education, and the economy), for me, was solidified by the fact that every time I heard him speak, it was with the utmost eloquence, intelligence, and dignity. Even when speaking of his opponents, Obama did so with respect. No matter what your political stance, you have to admit it’s quite refreshing to look back on such candor after this ruination of an election.
Near the tail-end of Obama’s 2008 campaign, I was fortunate to photograph him twice. The first experience was his stump speech on Halloween night at Highland, Indiana’s, Wicker Park, which is just about 20 minutes from my home. A diverse gathering of thousands packed the park to take in the historic evening. The highlight of that night for me was when the Secret Service allowed me to enter the “buffer” (the area immediately in front of the podium) for around three minutes to photograph Obama up close as he spoke. Crouched just five feet in front of one of the foremost political rock stars of my time, it seemed like I was only there working the angle for an instant before the Secret Service agent who’d granted me access was drawing his finger towards his face with the universal signal of, “Come back. Time’s up.”
23-year-old Lela Thompson (center) of Hammond, Ind., juggles cell phones to keep track of election results as her mother Beverly Jefferson (right), also of Hammond, Tammi Meriel (left) of Gary, Ind., and friend Shacauntae Spencer, also of Gary, look on while riding the Chicago South Shore and South Bend Railroad to Chicago to attend the Barack Obama election night rally in Chicago’s Grant Park, Tuesday, November 4, 2008.
Fortunately, just four days later, I had another opportunity to photograph Obama and his supporters at Grant Park in downtown Chicago when he clenched the presidential victory on election night. The atmosphere on the streets was electric and palpable. The crowd buzzed, exchanging election results with complete strangers on cell phones and keeping tuned to the news on giant video screens which had been set up around the park. When Obama finally sealed the deal, the place erupted with jubilation. I’d never been around such a large crowd in public (and I haven’t been in once since) that felt so safe and friendly. Blacks, whites, and hispanics (among other races) cried together, hugged each other, and celebrated in harmony. Say what you will about Obama and his political accomplishments, but in my neck of the woods, he absolutely succeeded in the simple act of bringing people together unlike any leader I’d known up to that point in my life.
(From left) Kyle Anderson, 22, of Chicago, watches a large video screen set up on Jackson Blvd. with Bryan Dowling, 25, of Fond Du Lac Wis., Jessica Alvarado, 20, Gerardo Galvin, 22, and Dan Levine, 22, all of Chicago, during an election night rally for Barack Obama held in Grant Park in Chicago, Ill., Tuesday, November 4, 2008.
An image of Barack Obama is paraded through crowds on Columbus Drive in Chicago after Obama was named president elect during an election night rally for Obama held in Grant Park in Chicago, Ill., Tuesday, November 4, 2008.
Lauren Slone (left) of Park Forest, Ill., embraces her sister Erin Slone following Barack Obama’s presidential election night acceptance speech speech in Grant Park in Chicago, Ill., Tuesday, November 4, 2008.
While many of my friends angrily swore off the inauguration day television coverage of Donald J. Trump, I set my alarm to make sure I was awake to take in the next chapter in United States history. I’ll save my commentary on all that for stiff adult beverages at the bar, but I will share with you an unexpected moment that happened just as President Obama walked to his helicopter for his last official departure from the U.S. Capitol Building. I got a huge lump in my throat, and my eyes began to well up with tears, something I definitely didn’t expect. I suppose Obama had a more profound effect on my life’s journey than I realized.
Thanks, Obama, for bringing the office of the president down from those bulletin board caricatures at Harrison Elementary to something that felt like it was actually part of my life. Thanks for including all the people in this country that some would rather forget. Thanks for making me feel like you always had things under control. Of course, finally, thanks for being a part of one of this young photographer’s first major political stories. Those experiences will be locked in my “scary memory” for as long as I’m alive.
Gary West Side High School 9th grade English teacher Odis Richardson stands among students gathered in the West Side High School auditorium to watch U.S. President Barack Obama’s inauguration speech in Gary, Ind., Tuesday, January 20, 2009.