Friday, October 9, 2009

Dear Mr. President

President Barack Obama drawn by Hernan Loredo-Rangel

In October of 1860, 11-year-old Grace Bedell wrote a letter to Abraham Lincoln, peppering the soon-to-be president with thoughts and questions. "Have you any little girls about as large as I am?" she wrote. "If you let your whiskers grow . . . you would look a great deal better." "I think that rail fence around your picture makes it look very pretty."

The letter ended as breathlessly as it had begun. "I must not write any more answer this letter right off."

A century and a half later, 10-year-old Alexis Duncan, a fourth grader here at Shamrock Gardens, sat down to write President Barack Obama. Although Alexis had no fashion tips for the famously handsome Obama, her letter brimmed with equally chatty enthusiasm.

"Are you having fun as President?" she asked? "Or is it all seriousness and business? Do you have a Smart Board for your meetings? I hope it's not an abyss of files and papers." "Have you been making some good laws?"

Like Grace, she expected an answer, albeit in a different form. "Maybe you can send an e-mail when you get this," she concluded.

Some things change, and some don't. Wars start and stop. Beards go in and out of fashion. The Internet arises, the mail declines. Yet little girls keep writing presidents as though they lived next door.

Alexis penned her letter as part of a PTA project to invite Barack and Michelle Obama to come see our school's accomplishments. Shamrock's students pass their lives far from the seat of presidential power. But from their letters, no one would ever guess. For two weeks, school corridors buzzed with happy excitement as students weighed their arguments, chose their words, copied and recopied their compositions.

Their letters often started off in formal tones. "Thank you for everything you have done for the United States and for North Carolina," wrote Raiven Gillespe. "My classmates and I appreciate the money going to the schools," noted Shelby Pincay. "I would like to congratulate you on being America's first black president," explained Mekhi Hampton.

Still the connection students felt to the Obamas broke quickly through. Mekhi Hampton followed his formal congratulations with a far different postscript. "Could you say hey to everybody?" he asked. Amaya Jones offered lunch. "We got to plant peas in our garden," she explained. "I hope you come so you can eat some." Like many students, Peyton Murphy signed her note "Your friend, Peyton." Students surrounded their words with hearts and flags and flowers. For those two weeks, the White House seemed so real, so close.

The daunting challenge of actually reaching the most powerful person in the world did not sink in until we packed our box (complete with crayon decorations) and put it in the mail. Two days later, a cryptic note appeared on the Postal Service website. "Delivery was attempted on 03/19/09 at 10:52 AM, and a notice was left."

No one at the White House at 10:52 on a Thursday morning!?!?? At first we chuckled at the image of a small, sticky note affixed to the famous front door. But we quickly panicked – not for our country's safety, but for our letters. How long would they be stuck in Post Office limbo?

A week later, thankfully, a more reassuring note appeared: "The delivery record shows that this item was delivered on 03/27/09 at 04:21 AM."

Someone at the White House signs for packages at 4:21 a.m.! The free world must be safe! More important, our letters had arrived. A post office employee informed us that the delay involved security checks. We wonder how long it took Grace Bedell's letter to reach Lincoln, in an era without computers or jet engines, but also without anthrax powder or plastique.

In the much smaller world of the 1860s, Grace Bedell got to meet her pen pal. Lincoln's inauguration train stopped in her hometown of Westfield, New York, and the freshly elected president, sporting his new beard, called her to the platform. We may never get that close. But in many ways, it doesn't matter. Visit or not, our kids' letters testify to the persisting power of our democratic ideals, the tenacious conviction that even our youngest citizens can speak or write or e-mail, and presidents will listen.

Perhaps our most poignant letter was written by fourth grader Tannia Juarez. Tannia came to Shamrock as a small, scared kindergartener, who spoke no English and was frequently in tears. Five years later, her letter to the U.S. President exuded calm assurance, and a clear sense of belonging. "I was so enthusiastic when I heard that you had won the election," she wrote. "I would like to invite you to our school, Shamrock Gardens Elementary (our homeroom is #15), whenever you have time. I wish you, your wife, and your daughters luck at the White House!"

From all of us at Shamrock, thank you, Barack and Michelle Obama, for helping our kids touch this spirit of democracy. In the words of second grader Tyler Gary, we "know you are busy taking care of the world." But if you ever feel the need for a bit of extra inspiration, you will always be welcome at Shamrock. Just Twitter us, and we'll be waiting.

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