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Obama sends message of equality

By Aaron Blevins, 1/24/2013

Inauguration gives students chance to witness historic moment


Several students and staff members of the Bright Star Secondary Charter Academy took the field trip of a lifetime earlier this week, when they traveled to Washington, D.C., to witness history — President Barack Obama’s second inauguration.

A younger Barack Obama campaigned in Los Angeles in 2007. His second inauguration was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for some local students. (photo by Edwin Folven)

History teacher William Pulgarin said the trip was awe-inspiring, as American democracy was on full display while the 44th president of the United States took the oath of office for his second term.

“It was just the best lesson I’ve been able to teach,” he said.

The entire chain of events that led them to the nation’s capitol began with a YouTube video that Pulgarin and his students created and submitted to Congresswoman Karen Bass (D-Calif.), who was giving away four inauguration tickets in a video and essay contest.

Their video tackled how the next four years will change education, with students flipping over white boards that had statements such as “The Dream Act”, “The Race to the Top”, “Partnering with states to raise standards” and “Rewarding responsible students”. To their surprise, they won.

When the school learned that Pulgarin’s high school class had won the tickets, officials secured three more tickets to accommodate more students. One student — Karla Espinoza — won a seated ticket in a drawing, and three others — Mario Sosa, Josh Osorio and Alejandra Gonzalez — were chosen based on their grade-point average. Pulgarin and another staff member, Kelley Sibley, served as chaperones.

However, the group still needed to fund the trip. Pulgarin said the high school, which is located near LAX, is a lower-income school, so asking parents or students to pay wasn’t an option. So they started a funding website, and donations began to roll in.

School officials opted to pay for transportation, food and lodging, but the website brought in an additional $560 for other expenses, Pulgarin said. He said donations came from everywhere — from a professor at USC to Pulgarin’s cousin in Florida.

“It was just incredible – the outpouring,” the history teacher said. “Everybody really wanted to see these students witness history.”

They departed on their six-hour flight on Saturday morning and met with Bass on Sunday for breakfast. The students were able to converse with her for about an hour, and also met Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and other mayors from big cities.

“That was an incredible event for us,” Pulgarin said. “I felt like that was an incredible event for them to be able to sit down and talk to a Congress member.”

On Monday, they attended the inauguration, where Obama addressed the nation for 15 minutes. He spoke of togetherness and the collective American character.

“Each time we gather to inaugurate a president, we bear witness to the enduring strength of our Constitution,” Obama said. “We affirm the promise of our democracy. We recall that what binds this nation together is not the colors of our skin or the tenets of our faith or the origins of our names.”

He also reiterated some of his campaign rallying cries — that the U.S. can not prosper while the country’s richest thrive and its majority suffers.

Obama said the country must band together to solve issues regarding healthcare, climate change, education, the economic recovery, sustainable energy, national security and equality for all — most notably, members of the LGBT community and immigrants.

“But the words I spoke today are not so different from the oath that is taken each time a soldier signs up for duty or an immigrant realizes her dream,” he said. “My oath is not so different from the pledge we all make to the flag that waves above and that fills our hearts with pride. They are the words of citizens and they represent our greatest hope. You and I, as citizens, have the power to set this country’s course. You and I, as citizens, have the obligation to shape the debates of our time — not only with the votes we cast, but with the voices we lift in defense of our most ancient values and enduring ideals.”

Pulgarin said inauguration and the atmosphere surrounding the event could be summed up by the phrase printed on many T-shirts being sold around the city: “You’re a witness to history.”

“Apart from being really, really cold … what really stuck out to me was, it felt not so much as a celebration for Barack, it was a celebration of the United States of America,” he said, adding that policy differences didn’t matter during the event. “It felt like it was a celebration of American democracy.”

Pulgarin said it was especially fitting that the inauguration was held on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. His group was able to visit the steps at the Lincoln Memorial where King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech on Aug. 28, 1963. The symbolism was not lost on Pulgarin.

“This is incredible — the change in this country,” he added.

The group’s tickets also allowed them entry to the inauguration parade, in which the presidential procession heads toward the White House. On Tuesday, the group went sightseeing and spent time at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Ford’s Theatre, where Abraham Lincoln was shot.

Pulgarin said it is difficult to pinpoint the group’s most memorable moment in Washington, D.C. In fact, he posed the question during dinner on Monday, and the students couldn’t really answer.

“They were having a difficult time,” Pulgarin added. “Everything has been amazing. It’s all too good.”

While witnessing history will have an obvious effect on his world and U.S. history classes, he said the trip offered a secondary lesson — how a simple idea can snowball quickly.

“The lesson was how something small can become so big and exceed our wildest expectations,” Pulgarin said. “This little idea turned into something bigger than we ever could have imagined.”

The group flew home on Wednesday, and will return to school today.

“We’re going back to the grind,” Pulgarin said. “It was an amazing experience. We’ll see how it impacts the school culture. I think it’s going to have an impact, a ripple effect.”



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