Election Analysis In Class, Embraces And Tears Outside It

By Avis Thomas-Lester and Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, November 6, 2008

"What happened yesterday?" U.S. history teacher Janisann Hay asked her class.

"Obama won!" several seventh-graders yelled.

"What does that mean?" Hay asked.

"That we're going to have higher taxes!" one girl opined.

"The troops are going to come home from Iraq!" a boy offered.

"The nation is going to be stronger!" declared another.

Scenes similar to the one at White Oak Middle School in Silver Spring yesterday morning played out on campuses across the region as students analyzed Sen. Barack Obama's victory in the presidential election. They marveled at the significance of the first person of color moving into the White House and weighed what the Illinois Democrat will do about issues such as health care. They also speculated about what the defeated Republican candidate, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), would have done about the Iraq war and what President Bush might do to improve his image before he leaves office.

At Potomac Falls High School in Loudoun County, the election was all the buzz before the first bell. At Howard University in the District, one of the nation's most prestigious historically black universities, every conversation seemed to start and end with Obama as students shared tears, laughter, hugs and disbelief that the country had elected a black president.

"Today, I said the Pledge of Allegiance for the first time in three years," said Grant Durando, 17, an Obama supporter and a student in Justin Brown's Advanced Placement government class at Potomac Falls High. "I said it because I'm proud -- that our country can go from killing millions of people on slave ships to one that puts a black man in office. I think I meant it for the first time, too."

Talk zipped around the classroom, which skewed about 80 percent toward Obama. But McCain supporters kept up a lively defense.

"A lot of it was the experience factor," said Ashley Dill, 17, a self-described liberal Republican, explaining her support for McCain. "I believe Obama is an idealist. He's got some great ideas. They all sound really pretty coming from his mouth, but there's no proof that he can get it through."

Rosa Rad, 16, a sophomore, said she passed out Obama pamphlets at 100 doors in Sterling on Monday. "I'm so excited, I was crying last night," she said. "I feel proud to be an American."

The historic campaign hooked many students from the beginning, and they were riveted on the results the day after.

"A lot of the interest has to do with the attention parents and teachers paid to this campaign," said Ron Walters, a professor of political science at the University of Maryland at College Park. "This has been an excellent year of teaching about the democratic process."

At White Oak Middle, teachers preempted lessons to let students wax about the historical event.

Hay said she talked politics with each of her classes Friday. Her students were required to watch two of the three presidential debates and write essays. They were so caught up in the campaign, Hay said, that a group came to her last week and asked to hold a mock election. The team put together a PowerPoint presentation about the candidates, typed up ballots and made ballot boxes. Students voted in first-period classes. Obama bested McCain, 583 to 44.

Jenna Beers, 13, said she supported Obama even though her parents voted for McCain. She lamented missing Obama's acceptance speech because her parents enforced her 10 p.m. bedtime.

In class, Nicholas Holden, 13, and Elliott McKoy, 13, wore Obama T-shirts. So did Darrien Carr, 13, who created his own from a white shirt with blue and red markers and a bumper sticker he cut up.

"I made it myself after Obama's speech last night," he said. "We had relatives and friends over for a party. I made the T-shirt to give me something to do until I went to sleep."

Elliott was among the friends at Darrien's who had watched the historic returns and speeches by Obama and McCain. "The adults were, like, crying, mostly our mothers," he said. "I think they were crying because history was being made."

At the Howard campus, junior Shelley Bruce sobbed with joy after a group of students sang "We Shall Overcome" near the student center. Tuesday's election "washed away the sin and the oppression," said junior Dorian Archie, pointing to an American flag.

"That flag way up there means something to me today," he said.

Many students had spent the night celebrating with friends and strangers, running through the rain to the White House or dancing near the student center at 3 a.m. Some, such as Bruce, had a new resolve; she said she is no longer cynical about politics and is going to go to law school.

Others talked about using the intellectual strength of Howard to help draw up an agenda, a black agenda, for the new president.

"I think the door has been opened," sophomore Charles Turner said. "I'm not saying it's wide open. . . . The system is still against us, so we need to make the change."

Staff writer Susan Kinzie contributed to this report.

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