I last visited the White House in the summer of 1968. Richard Millhouse Nixon was president and I remember a lot of people with long hair and colorful clothes shouting in the direction of the president’s home. My father told me these people were called “hippies” and they were protesting the Vietnam War.
“Why here?” I asked my dad. He replied that hippies had a lot of time to travel and protest, and often go to places like Washington, D.C.
“Do they work?”
“No,” my father answered.
I thought being a hippy was a pretty good lifestyle, with lots of opportunity to travel and no need to work.
I was 9-years-old at the time and the White House appeared large and off-limits to ordinary people. My mom and dad took many pictures of my brother and me standing in front of the president’s beautiful house, separated by a tall wrought iron fence and a deep green lawn. I wondered if President Nixon was looking out his window at the hippies and me.
Forty-one years later I was finishing my last security search before entering the White House to meet President Obama. I passed through a metal detector and my wife and mother-in-law were asked to surrender their pocketbooks. A secret service agent escorted my family to the Roosevelt Room and we were instructed to wait there until taken to the Oval Office. The regal wood paneled room is filled with portraits of Theodore and Franklin, each president glancing at the other from opposite walls. I was admiring a painting of then Colonel Roosevelt charging up San Juan Hill when a White House aide asked for a copy of my Rose Garden speech. I had only one copy tucked inside my suit jacket and was reluctant to part with it. The young aide politely assured me that he would make a duplicate and place the original in a nice binder. “You don’t want the wind blowing away your speech while standing at the podium, do you?”
“No,” I answered. The image of the speech flying away from the podium and me chasing scattered pages on the Rose Garden lawn only added to my anxiety. I thought about how popular “National Teacher of the Year Runs After Speech” would be on YouTube.
The secret service agent returned to inform me that in exactly 11 minutes I would be escorted through a locked door at the far end of the Roosevelt Room, cross a narrow hallway, and then enter another locked door leading to the Oval Office. He stood then with his back against the wall, watching my family and glancing at his watch.
“Seven minutes,” the agent called out.
“One more minute, Mr. Mullen.”
This was the moment I had been dreading for the past few weeks. What if I meet the president and say something stupid? What if I walk to the podium in the Rose Garden and become paralyzed with stage fright? What if….
“The president will be delayed,” the agent said. “You will meet him in 12 minutes.”
Twelve minutes? Could the president’s schedule be so precisely calculated? I took a deep breath and leaned my right shoulder against the locked exit door. The extra time may relax my nerves. Good afternoon, sir. Good afternoon, Mr. President. God afternoon, President Obama. Did I say God afternoon? I’m getting tongue twisted just thinking about meeting the president.
“Where’s the bathroom?” my father-in-law asked.
Bathroom? How do I know where the bathroom is? “Hold it in, Joe,” I said.
“But I need to take a leak.”
I told to my father-in-law the Roosevelt Room had no bathroom.
“What about the president’s office?”
“The president’s office? You want to take a leak in the Oval Office?” Not only am I getting tongue twisted thinking about how to greet the president but I also have to deal with an aging bladder.
I was just about to tell my father-in-law that he would probably not be permitted to use the president’s private bathroom when the door I was leaning against opened and a man shook my hand.
I turned around and was face-to-face with the president of the United States of America. What happened to the 12 minutes? Where was my Secret Service escort? I stood speechless staring at the president.
“Welcome, Tony,“ the president repeated. “How are you?”
“Fine, Mr. President…very well.” I replied.
I was astonished to be shaking hands with the president and somewhat confused. The last close encounter I had with the president was standing next to one of the many life-size cardboard images of the president that clutter the streets of the nation’s capital, and didn’t protocol dictate I be escorted to meet the president? I should have been taken to the president and instead he comes to me; the most powerful man in the world came to greet a teacher.
The president welcomed my family to his home and invited us to the Oval Office. The First Lady and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan stood in front of the president’s desk; wide smiles brightened their faces. My mother-in-law and Mrs. Obama talked about children and grandchildren, the president and secretary of education talked about basketball with my teenage son, and my father-in-law looked for a bathroom.
The president emphasized the important role teachers played in his life and how these teachers instilled confidence in him at an early age. The president and his wife posed for many pictures with my family and made us feel very comfortable in an office filled with so much history. My family was then escorted to the Rose Garden and I was left in the Oval Office with President Obama and Secretary of Education. We stood in front of a beautiful set of French doors, three men wearing suits and gazing upon the crowd outside. The president turned to me and said, “You know, Tony, this will be my first speech in the Rose Garden.”
I nodded my head politely and did not know what to say. Was the president providing a quick fact or letting me know that his first Rose Garden speech was set aside for teachers? And then I looked at the president and saw a pair of warm and intelligent eyes. I also saw the face of my students, particularly a student named Tyler who had an African-American father and Caucasian mother. I decided to break the silence.
“If it’s any consolation, Mr. President, this is my first speech in the Rose Garden and I speak after you.”
The president smiled and placed his arm around my shoulder. “Let’s do it!” he said. The president of the United States placed his arm upon the shoulder of a teacher and walked with me to the Rose Garden.
Beautiful. Simply beautiful.
The opinions expressed in Road Diaries: 2009 Teacher of the Year are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.