On May 1, 2014 the State Teachers of the Year were invited to the White House to meet the President, participate in a a ceremony and hear the official announcement of the National Teacher of the Year. Our day started in the Executive Office building meeting with policy makers.
We walked over to the White House. My fifty two friends, the 2014 State Teachers of the Year and I are lined up according to height in the State Dining Room. Being slightly height-challenged and not wearing huge heels, I am toward the end of the line.
We’ve been admiring the elegant table where so many dignitaries and presidents have sat. We’ve all had our pictures taken in front of the fire place with the giant portrait of Abe Lincoln towering above us. Some of us used the bathroom, not because we needed to, but just to see what it looked like.
We had rehearsed the ceremony in the East Room. I noticed the President’s glass of water covered by a Presidential seal. I wanted to stand behind the podium that the President and Sean would speak from behind. But when someone tried it, we were admonished by a staffer that “No one stands behind that but the POTUS!” I settled for a picture in front of it.
Suddenly the vibe in the room shifted. We stood straighter, brushing non-existent lint off our best suits and smoothing our hair. This was it.
Nervously I waited my turn, thinking, “Whose life is this?” Just then, I heard his voice. Yes, his voice, the one I usually only hear on the news.
I craned my neck to see his smiling face through the Red Room and into the Blue Room. I was glad we had time in the gorgeous rooms earlier because I was too focused on watching my friends meet him and I have no memory of waiting in them now.
We’re normally such a loud and chatty group, whom John Quam calls, “The most exuberant group he’s ever known,” but now we are silent, almost spellbound.
I’m in the Red Room.
Only a few friends ahead of me now. Last chance to straighten my skirt and make sure my grandmother’s necklace is just right. I know my mom and aunts will want to see it in the picture.
All of the sudden I have a visceral reaction to this incredible experience. My hands start to shake, my breath quickens, and tears flood my eyes. Now, we had been warned in advance that the White House photographer was there to make the President look good in pictures, not us. So if we looked goofy in the pictures, that was on us. No retakes on the pictures we’ll want our great grandchildren to see someday.
So I decide that tears must not flow for the sake of the picture. Out loud I say, “No tears-too much mascara.” The Secret Service agent next to me laughs.
Arne Duncan kindly asks me how I’m doing. I’m honestly too preoccupied to acknowledge the Secretary of Education right then.
My good friend John Mastroianni of Connecticut steps up.
A Marine takes my elbow and makes sure he says my name correctly to introduce me to the POTUS. He must sense my nerves because he reassures me that he will be there to guide me the whole way.
I had planned what to say knowing that I’ve gotten a bit tongue-tied around celebrities before. (Ask my husband about my brilliant conversation with Peter Sagal of NPR.) I planned to tell him about amazing things happening in Arizona especially in regards to teacher leadership. I wanted to issue him an invitation to Sunset Hills.
I step forward, hand outstretched. His smile makes everything and everyone dissolve around me. His hand is soft, but his hand shake is firm. He pulls me in for a hug. He smells of nothing. Believe me, I took a big sniff, knowing I wanted to remember this moment with all my senses so I could remember this vividly. His suit coat was coarse.
He broke our hug and ushered me around to face the photographer.
So as I’m turning the President must have noticed a slight sparkle on my nose. I have a tasteful, tiny nose piercing with a small stone in a silver setting.
Apparently it caught the President’s attention because he touched it. You read that right – THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES TOUCHED MY NOSE!
He exclaimed, “They let teachers have their noses pierced? THAT IS SO COOL!”
Everything I had planned to say flew out of my head at that moment.
I sputtered something about being honored to represent the teachers of Arizona, although I was born and raised on Illinois. He asked me from where. I said, “Born in Peoria, raised in Arlington Heights and Barrington.” He said, “I know all those places,” and asked me if I still had family in Illinois. When I said yes, he told me to give them his regards.
So, Dad, Donna, Chandler, Aunt Deb, Aunt Sharon, Uncle Jeff, Aunt Carol, Uncle Ed, Cousin Dave, Heather and kids, the President says, “Hello!”
Before I knew it, the Marine was politely pulling me away by the elbow.
During the ceremony to honor the State Teachers and officially name Sean McComb the National Teacher of the Year, I could see each hair on the President’s head. I could have reached out and touched him, but I refrained since I didn’t feel like getting tackled by the Secret Service. I watched his hands, longer and thinner that I would have expected. I noticed his wedding ring. I could read along with his speech in a binder in page protectors.
I love this hilarious picture that looks like I’m peering between the President and Sean about to say, “Hey guys!”
The experience hasn’t quite sunk in yet. Maybe it never quite will.
It helps that I got to sneak my husband in for a few minutes after the ceremony.
But like all incredible days, it had to end. Back to room to 256 at Sunset Hills where I belong.