By Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 12, 2009
As he researched charter bus tickets one day in late December, Ethan Plato said nothing could stop him from attending the inauguration. Not the classes he would miss. Not the hit his college budget would take. Not even the 570 miles between Washington and his school in Canada.
"There's no hesitation there at all," said the 18-year-old University of Ottawa freshman. "The way I see it is, I may miss three or four classes once in my first year, but this will be something I will remember forever."
Across the nation and beyond, students are going to great lengths to witness the presidential inauguration of Barack Obama, showing that the energy and activism his campaign ignited even among those too young to vote has continued after the November election.
On Facebook, numerous groups have been formed by students planning road trips -- one from Jamaica -- and by those angry with class schedules that conflict with the Jan. 20 ceremony. At Harvard University, hundreds of undergraduates have signed an online petition asking administrators to allow students to make up exams scheduled that day. In Montgomery County, officials initially sought to go against a regional trend and keep schools open for the inauguration, but a student petition seeking to close schools drew more than 5,000 signatures.
"The thing that I thought was surprising was how many students were willing to do something else besides just talk about it," said Springbrook High government and politics teacher Elizabeth Kelley. "They weren't just interested in getting a day off, but they were truly interested in getting a day off to participate in one way or another. . . . I had two different students tell me that their parents were not going to let them take their exams because they were going to go to the inauguration."
The Student and Youth Travel Association, based in Michigan, which includes travel agents, tour operators and bus companies, estimates that as many as 500,000 students plan to attend the inauguration. That's five times the number who attended President Bush's second inauguration. Debbie Gibb, the association's associate executive director, said that one bus company recently reported that 30 of its 50 vehicles have been booked by student groups for this inauguration, compared with five in 2005.
Plato said he and 49 other students plan to do "a lot of sleeping on the bus." They will leave the night before the inauguration, arrive in Washington in the morning and head back to Canada that night. Still, it'll be worth it, said the teenager, who dragged a life-size cutout of Obama with him to the pub for the election.
"We really see this as an opportunity for the world to become a better place," Plato said.
In Montgomery, students countywide sent a loud, collective message that could not be ignored: They, too, wanted the chance to see history. Kelley's students started the Facebook group "Petition for NO SCHOOL Inauguration Day!," which drew about 2,000 members. At Albert Einstein High School, government teacher Steven Garfinkel's students, many of them children of immigrants, wrote letters to the governor's office.
Myles Ambrose, 13, an eighth-grader at Westland Middle School, formed a Facebook group called "Skrew School, im going to the inauguration."
"I really didn't care if it was a holiday or not. I really wanted to go to this," Myles said. He created the group a week after the election and before the Montgomery school board voted unanimously in early December to close schools Jan. 20.
Although he will still be too young to vote in 2012, Myles said he sometimes is frustrated by those who don't "realize the magnitude of this election." He has applied for a press pass to the event because he works on his school's television crew but said he is doubtful he will get one. Instead, he will likely seek to squeeze out a place on the Mall with his parents.
"It's a really big step forward in our society, and I really want to witness that," Myles said. "It's change from what we've had in the past. It's someone younger, or youngish. It's someone closer to understanding issues that affect me."
His 14-year-old friend Emma Chessen was so involved in the campaign, knocking on doors for Obama and holding an election night party with sparkling cider, that her parents decided to give up coveted inauguration tickets to stand with their children in the crowd.
"If my kids didn't care, if this hadn't been as important to them as it was, I would say, 'Oh, you guys watch it on TV,' " Sonia Chessen of Chevy Chase said. But the election changed her family's dinner conversations, she said, and she knew her children wouldn't be satisfied watching the inauguration from afar.
"I'm so devoted I would walk there, like, five miles," Emma said. "I just want to be there."
Tanuj Parikh, 21, a senior at Harvard who interned for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) in 2006, said his loyalty to Obama solidified at a rally in Boston before the 2008 Massachusetts presidential primary.
"For the first time in my life, I understood the reverence and the awe they spoke of with JFK," he said, referring to former president John F. Kennedy.
Parikh bought a plane ticket to Washington for Jan. 19, but he said he paid extra for flight insurance in case he has to cancel. Like 2,000 other Harvard undergraduates, Parikh has a final exam scheduled during the inauguration. If the school doesn't respond favorably to the online petition he started, which has drawn about 600 signatures, he doesn't know what he's going to do, he said.
"The last thing I want is to not graduate in June," Parikh said. On the other hand, if he comes to Washington, he will have a story to tell any potential employer who asks about his failed class. "If they're are not going to hire me for that, I don't want to work there anyway," he said.
Robert Mitchell, spokesman for Harvard College, the undergraduate section of the university, said that the school's policy is not to move exams on a wholesale basis but that students can request accommodations through an administrative board, which will decide case by case.
Sophomore Jason Y. Shah, 19, called it a "backwards policy" for an "institution that is considered one of the most pioneering and forward-thinking in the world." Shah has petitioned for a religious exemption, one that coincidentally falls during the inauguration and would allow him to reschedule exams and travel to the District by bus. But he said others are left weighing the risks of going versus the disappointment of staying.
"Some students have said they are just going to go regardless," he said. "They are going to go and deal with the consequences afterward."
After all, as Montgomery 11th-grader Annika Glennon put it: "What are you going to tell your kids or your friends when they ask what you were doing on Inauguration Day.
"Like, 'Taking an exam?' " the 16-year-old said. "That's not cool."