Surprise visitor at Ballou doesn’t stay a surprise for long

March 30, 2011

Bri’Yanna Perry knew a special guest was coming Wednesday to Ballou High School. But she didn’t find out who until she was watching a morning news show. The visitor would be first lady Michelle Obama.

“It was supposed to be a surprise for us, but word get around,” said Perry, a junior at the school in Southeast Washington.

Some students kept watch looking through lunch- or classroom windows, trying to catch a glimpse of her arrival.

By 1 p.m., about 30 students had been invited to meet in the school’s renovated library, where they were to wait for Obama. Some smiled, some giggled, others made idle chatter. A few were even silent. Most were anxious.

Each time the door opened they would start clapping. Then they were quickly disappointed when someone else would walk through the door. Finally, Obama entered the room and was greeted with loud applause from the students.

The visit was part of the first lady’s annual celebration for Women’s History Month. Twenty women were sent to area schools to discuss the important role mentoring can have in the lives of young people.

Former WNBA player Lisa Leslie, Olympic gymnast Dominique Dawes and recording artist India.Arie were among the visitors dispatched to schools in the region.

Obama said she picked Ballou because she wanted to highlight the accomplishments of its students. “I’ve heard a lot of good things about this school,” she said. “And I’m honored to be here.”

Rahman Branch, the school’s principal, said he hoped Obama had decided to come to Ballou “because she has a desire to join us in the transformation of what many are now calling the New Ballou.”

Rian Hayes, a junior at the school, came prepared with several questions written on a strip of paper.

“Is it possible that we can have a national anti-bullying campaign to go along with the child nutrition program?” she asked.

Obama said she thought it was important that there be a national conversation on bullying. “A lot of the work that needs to happen around the question of bullying needs to happen on the ground,” she said. “It’s got to happen with parents and principals and with kids — all of you all taking some responsibility by either stepping up or staying out of that fray.”

Rian, who said she had recently finshed acting in a film about a young boy being bullied, said harassment is a big problem. “I was really hoping she would give steps to [stop] bullying, but she gave me a pretty good answer.”

Bri’Yanna, who asked Obama about her choice of a major as an undergraduate at Princeton, said meeting the first lady was encouraging and gave her a sense that anything is possible.

“She was talking to us like she knew us,” she said. “It was an experience. A once in a lifetime experience. Everybody doesn’t get to meet the first lady.”

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