One year after taking office, President Obama offers potent role model for local children

By DeNeen Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 29, 2010

Adults kept telling them: "There is finally a man in the White House who looks like you." ¶ Their parents emphasized repeatedly: The election of Barack Obama was "historic! Historic! HISTORIC!" The comments seemed too enormous to grasp for young people who hadn't lived through segregation, the civil rights movement, the black-is-beautiful movement and the start of affirmative action. ¶ But a year after the inauguration, there is evidence that the election has had an effect. The signs are neither big nor quantifiable, but subtle and not extending to everyone. Some still wonder what the big deal is. ¶ For others, though, change came in lessons at school, on television. Admonitions to do something. Be somebody. Help somebody. Obama became a verb. Obama became someone to emulate. Suddenly, what was impossible seemed doable. ¶ Here are a few of these stories.

A cold rain is falling as William Butler waits to catch a bus near 14th Street and Columbia Road in Northwest Washington. There is no shelter at this stop. Butler, tall and wearing a blue jacket, is standing alone near the curb. He grips a plastic Safeway bag and steps back as one bus after another pulls to a stop.

"If we take the 52, we can see the front of the White House," Butler says. "If we take the 54, we can see the side." The buses pull away one behind the other. Butler hurries to catch the 52.

Each weekday, he rides the bus from his GED program, south on 14th Street. Sometimes, it takes him two hours to reach his temporary home in Southeast. Butler carries a somber determination as he rides through this Washington every day to the other Washington, the one sometimes neglected and misunderstood. He does not come from a place of opportunity. His mother never lined up for free tickets to take a White House tour. There are some places in this city he has never been to.

Butler takes a seat near the front. Through the window, Butler thinks he can see the White House in the distance, standing amid the gray buildings of Washington that symbolize the city's power.

"I ride past the White House on the bus every day. I think: 'Wow, a black man is there. I wonder what is he doing up in there.' "

He has never pressed the vertical bar to beckon the bus driver to stop so he can get out, walk the two blocks to the White House and look through its black iron gates.

He admires Obama, listens to all his speeches. Feels that Obama is talking directly to him. Sometime during the campaign, it hit him: Butler decided to go back to school and get his GED. "I don't have words for it," he says. "It's immeasurable. I believe I can do anything I want. I want to go to college."

His life has been complicated. His grandmother raised him, his sister, his brother and the three other boys his mother had. "She could handle us in her day, but her day came and gone," says Butler, now a student at YouthBuild, a public charter school.

He dropped out of school in sixth grade, he is saying. Sixth grade? you say. Are you serious?

"Serious as a heart attack. I started selling drugs. I used to be out all day and night. Everybody said school would pay off in the long run, but I wanted to get paid in the moment. My grandmother took care of us. My mom was a drug addict. My dad been dead since I was 2. I got the death certificate. He was murdered."

It's a common story in Washington, a common tragedy, as if tragedy could be common. Generations of tragedy piled one on top of the other; few escapes, few role models, few rising to the top.


CONTINUED     1                 >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company