When President Barack Obama stepped up to the lectern at noon yesterday, shouts of joy and ripples of “Obama! Obama!” spread through the audience. Tears streamed down people’s faces and cries of “Amen” punctuated the air.
But the scene was not in Washington. The viewers were high school students watching CBS News on a giant projection screen in downtown New Haven. Christening the seats of a nearly packed lecture hall, roughly 75 Cooperative Arts & Humanities High School students and teachers spent part of their first day in the school’s new College Street location watching Obama’s inauguration.
One female student confidently exclaimed, “I’m going to run this country one day — you watch!” as the ceremony began. Feelings of pride surged as the young crowd intently watched the scene unfold 300 miles away. And students acted as if they too were seated on the Capitol lawn.
Roaring applause erupted as “Barack H. Obama” was introduced on the podium. Students chuckled at singer Aretha Franklin’s hat selection and everyone in the room stood as Chief Justice John Roberts administered the presidential oath of office.
But for those gathered at Co-op, the most lasting message from the day’s events was one of empowerment, as students interviewed said they saw Obama’s election as encouragement for them to pursue their dreams.
“Can’t is not an option now,” said Cynee Hawley, a black Co-op senior. “I can do anything I put my mind to.”
Brittney Graham, another Co-op senior, said she helped with a mock student election in November, and the student body overwhelmingly favored Obama to McCain.
“I think Obama had 528 votes,” she said. “McCain had about 28.”
And while the student votes were not entirely based on the politicians’ policies, Obama’s emphasis in his inaugural address on strengthening the public education system provoked cheers in the crowd.
Co-op students were not the only individuals vocal about their emotions of the day. Judith Katz, a creative writing teacher, first-generation American and nine-year veteran of the New Haven public school system, said she was similarly inspired by the inauguration events.
Later, during class, Katz spoke with her students about the inaugural speech and poem delivered by Yale professor Elizabeth Alexander ’84. She said Obama’s apparent affection for the spoken and written word gives reason for the students to study his speech. After all, she pointed out, Obama is a writer himself.
“Obama is a listener and brings a different tone of conversation to the country,” she said. “Like Lincoln, he has absolutely been completely open about his process as a writer.”
Katz also stressed the significance that the election of the first African-American president carries at Co-op, a school with a diverse student and faculty population. And while the first day of Obama’s presidency coincided with the first day at Co-op’s new school location, Katz said students will be back to business on Wednesday.
“Tomorrow we have to go to work,” Katz exclaimed as her students left the classroom, “because that’s what the president said we’ve got to do.”