BETHESDA

Chilean Leader Walks the Halls of Her Youth

After a special assembly at Westland Middle School, Michelle Bachelet, president of Chile, tells students about her life and job. Bachelet, in the area to meet with President Bush, told students that any of them could become president  --  of the United States or of their native countries  --  by working hard.
After a special assembly at Westland Middle School, Michelle Bachelet, president of Chile, tells students about her life and job. Bachelet, in the area to meet with President Bush, told students that any of them could become president -- of the United States or of their native countries -- by working hard. (Photos By Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)

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By Lori Aratani
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 9, 2006

Two weeks isn't a lot of time, but if you really, really practice, you, too, can master the Chilean national anthem. And if you're really, really lucky, like 14-year-old Dao Hoang was yesterday, you'll have the opportunity to play "El Himno Nacional" for someone really, really important -- someone like Michelle Bachelet, the first female president of Chile.

Bachelet, in Washington to meet with President Bush, took a side trip yesterday to her alma mater, Westland Middle School in Bethesda, where she was a student in 1963. She also attended nearby Wood Acres Elementary school in 1962. Bachelet and her family lived in Bethesda for two years while her father, Alberto Bachelet Martinez, was assigned to a military mission at the Chilean Embassy.

"It's, I would say, a strange feeling to come back here after 33 years," Bachelet, 54, told a crowd of students awe-struck that a president -- a president! -- had once walked the same hallways they do today.

Dao, who plays saxophone, and other members of Westland's school band worked hard to master the Chilean national anthem in time for Bachelet's visit.

"Well, it's rather fast, and it keeps going and going and going," Dao said, describing the tune. "It's a hard song."

But their efforts paid off. When Bachelet arrived at the Bethesda campus shortly after 9 a.m., she stepped out of her car and, ignoring her security detail, strolled over to the front lawn, where the band was playing.

"Congratulations," she said, when they finished. "That was wonderful."

The Bethesda campus, which offers a Spanish immersion program as well as a middle-years International Baccalaureate program and has a number of international students, was in full frenzy yesterday. Eighth-graders Brianna Crayton and Ashley Silver were among students chosen to line the front walkway of the school and greet Bachelet.

"This is so exciting," said Ashley, clutching a miniature Chilean flag. "I've never met a president before."

Inside the school, which was called Western Junior High School when Bachelet was a student there, students and staff could hardly contain themselves.

"We are humbled and excited," said Westland Principal Ursula A. Hermann. "It's not every day that we can welcome a woman who has made history."

Bachelet was presented with several gifts -- a picture of Glen Echo Park, a shawl made in the United States and a drawing that included the Chilean national flower, the copihue (or Chilean bellflower), combined with the black-eyed Susan, the official Maryland flower.


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