When President Barack Obama took the oath of office in January, several students and teachers from Blount County and Alcoa were on hand for the moment.
Mark Williamson, a government and economics teacher from William Blount High School, led a group of about 29 students and teachers from his school and Heritage High School.
The trip was open to any student who wanted to go. The idea for the trip started during the campaign. “Last year I decided that no matter what, I’ve taught government and economics for years and this inauguration was going to be a historic time for people to see,” said Williamson.
“We could’ve had the first woman, the first African American or the oldest person ever sworn in. I went down and contacted EF Tours and discussed going to Washington and told them we wanted to be there for the inauguration and see as much as we could of Washington,” he said.
Williamson said they saw all the sights most tourists see at the capitol on their trip. “On inauguration day, we got up early. The tour company had inauguration events the night before, but we got up at 3:30 a.m. the next day and were on the bus by 4 to start into Washington,” he said. “We were afraid D.C. would be full of people, and it was packed heading in.”
Police stopped every vehicle but buses. “There were tons of buses coming in, it was still dark and we had to figure out when was the best time to jump off the bus. We took all the people out and started walking,” he said. “There were massive waves of people. We reorganized because we had cell phones. It was like going to a UT ball game on every street.”
Williamson said that even though they were among some of the first to arrive at the mall near the capitol, it was starting to get packed with people. They found a large monitor close by and stayed beside it. They could see the stage in front of the capitol and could watch the monitor to see who was speaking. Security was everywhere for the occasion.
“I heard there was one security person for every 8 people,” Williamson said. “It was astronomical.”
The teacher said that once the group got on the mall and stationed, he was amazed at how civil the crowd was. “People would leave an area, go to the bathroom, and people let them back in where they were. They weren’t jostling for space,” he said. “Some people booed Bush’s name and most people said, ‘Be quiet. That’s not respectful.’ It was amazing how decent and respectful the crowd was.”
Williamson said he was impressed at how strangers in the crowd felt pity on one of the William Blount students who only brought a hoodie and didn’t have a coat. “People in the crowd would loan him things to put on for periods of time. People saw he was freezing and gave him extra pocket warmers,” he said. “It was really nice to see that attitude from the crowds. You don’t see that too often.”
Williamson said the temperatures were freezing and even people with coats on were numb. “Even though I had on insulated socks and Under Armor on, it was frigid and the wind was blowing hard. We were glad when the sun started peeking over buildings in Washington.”
Williamson said it was about six and a half hours until the inauguration was all over.
“We stood there as the ceremony went on. It allowed for a lot of government discussion to occur,” he said. “It brought government home for some of these kids.”
Williamson said the inauguration was a part of history the students need to participate in. The teacher, who lived in Washington as a child when Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, said seeing an African American sworn in on the other end of the mall where King delivered his speech was a fulfillment of the slain civil rights leader’s dream.
“I think to older people who had all this occur in their lifetimes, it was a thrill. They could actually see the fulfillment of what they experienced through the years,” he said. “This was a fulfillment of a dream of equality and of the Declaration of Independence.”
Williamson said the crowd was excited. “It was really uplifting. We’re often cynical about government. I thought it was interesting. It’s one of few times I’ve seen bipartisanship occur. It really happens,” he said.
When the ceremony was over, Williamson and the students toured part of the Smithsonian Institute for an hour and a half to let the crowd thin out. “It was a fantastic trip. It was about four days. We left on a Sunday and came back on a Thursday,” he said. “Everyone enjoyed it.”
Williamson said the 29 students included about 7 to 10 from Heritage and 19 from William Blount. Four adults, including teacher Kevin Rowland from Heritage High and assistant principal Jennifer Moore from William Blount were on hand.
Rowland, a government and U.S. history teacher at Heritage High, said his students loved the trip. “It was historic. We had McCain supporters and Obama supporters on the trip, and they all thoroughly enjoyed it,” he said of the students.
Rowland said his goal, as a government teacher, has always been to try to make government seem real to the students and not just another subject they’re learning from a textbook. “When William Blount invited us to join them, there was no doubt this was something we needed to do. I think the kids saw it as a learning opportunity,” he said. “Even though they had to commit to the trip before they knew who the winner was going to be, they recognized attending the inauguration was an awesome learning experience, and it being such a historic moment was an additional bonus to the trip.”
Caroline Tate, a paraprofessional at Alcoa Middle School, traveled to Washington for the inauguration with Alcoa Middle School sixth grade teacher Gloria Miller.
Tate said just looking at pictures of the event she witnessed brings back emotions from that day. “It’s a feeling people just don’t understand. I can’t even look at the picture. I was trembling. The feeling just keeps flowing like I was when I was there,” she said. “You will never understand that feeling until you’re there. It was humbling.”
Tate said the crowds were very civil. “There was no arguing, just people talking to each other. I know God was there,” she said.
Tate said she met people from Massachusetts to Texas. “We felt like family. We were singing songs,” she said.
Miller echoed Tate’s thoughts. “People were very polite, and we were with about two million people,” she said.
Miller said she enjoyed seeing President Obama’s inauguration. “It was a lifetime experience for me. People were caught up in the moment of the first African American president,” she said.
On the morning of the inauguration, many of the streets were blocked and pedestrians had to walk several blocks whenever they wanted to cross.
Tate said they were in Leesburg, Va., about 45 miles from the capitol, and they left for the inauguration at 3:30 a.m. “We didn’t get into the city until 7:30. It took two and a half hours to get to the mall.”
Miller said even in the cold and inconvenience, she wasn’t discouraged. “You had to have a sense of resolve,” she said.
Tate said time passed quickly in the excitement. “You didn’t know it was two and a half hours,” she said. “We were just singing songs.”
Miller said the enthusiasm crossed racial lines. “A German man in front of us said it’s not about color, it’s the hope he brings to the office,” she said.