Tree-planting with the Obamas
Chris Jackson, 17, was camping in the Appalachians last weekend, so he was late in getting the cell phone message with the news. The Baltimore City College junior was selected to plant trees for Earth Day with the Obamas, the Bidens and Bill Clinton, thanks to his involvement in the Student Conservation Association. So was Antica Howell, 18, a senior at NAF.
Due to national security concerns, the students were supposed to keep the plan a secret. To arrange an excused absence from school, Chris did let it slip to City Principal Tim Dawson that he would be meeting the president -- but he wouldn't say where he was going. "He's a faithful soldier," Dawson said this afternoon as he let Chris and I use his office for an interview.
On Tuesday morning, Chris, Antica and six other students convened at Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens, where they spent the day preparing for the 5 p.m. event. Each of the students was assigned to help a dignitary with the heavy labor involved in digging a hole in the ground and sticking a tree in it. Antica was paired with Clinton. Chris, along with a girl from Washington named Brenda, got President Obama. They were making plans to present him with gloves and a shovel when Chris heard a loud voice ask, "Where's Chris and Brenda?" And he realized: "That's the president speaking."
The next thing he knew, Chris was shaking the president's hand, chatting with the first lady about tree-planting and asking about the new family dog. He had prepared formal answers to any questions the president might have, but "he was just really friendly" and kept the students calm as the cameras were snapping away.
In boots, Michelle Obama was better prepared than her husband, in dress shoes, for the digging that was about to ensue. Chris said the first lady "seemed a lot smaller" in person than he expected -- and she does have great arms. Overall, he was impressed with the stately group. "They all looked perfect," he said. The vice president's chattiness and goofiness also took him by surprise. "Joe Biden and his wife were throwing worms at each other," he said. "It was really cute."
After helping Barack Obama plant a redbud, Chris gave the first lady a hand with her tree, the biggest in the bunch, prompting the president to give him a high-five. At the end of the ceremony, he got to keep the glove Obama wore on his left hand (they're both left-handed) and he presented the president with an SCA fleece.
On the MARC train back to Baltimore that night, Chris couldn't contain his excitement as he called family and friends from his cell phone. As it happened, a former Sun editor who now works in Washington was siting next to him and Antica. He was so moved by the phone conversations he overheard that he suggested I blog about their experience.