Hundreds of Annandale High School students greeted Michelle Obama and the first lady of South Korea Thursday morning with a standing ovation, thundering applause and a few excited shrieks.
"Having her here is pretty much a big deal," said junior Mindy Vo,16. "It's just something that doesn't usually happen at Annandale. You hear about people going to other schools — Annandale doesn't really get that."
Annandale is an inside-the-Beltway community where many Korean American families live and run businesses. Its high school is among Fairfax County's most diverse, with students whose families hail from more than 90 countries; there is no majority racial or ethnic group.
The school boasts a rigorous International Baccalaureate program and consistently posts high scores on state math and reading tests, but students said it rarely receives the kind of attention showered on its renowned neighbor four miles away, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology.
"This is something that will really put us on the map," said Anne Curran, 17, a senior and co-editor of the student newspaper. "I think Annandale deserves that because it's kind of a gem."
The first ladies' visit was part of an official state visit by South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and his wife, Kim Yoon-ok, who will be guests of honor at a White House state dinner Thursday night. Flanked by students in Annandale's gymnasium, the two women watched a series of musical performances by local children and Grammy-nominated violinist Jennifer Koh.
Koh— wearing a sleeveless dress that, it must be said, showed off triceps rivaling Obama's — played a solo sonata that was alternately frenetic and meditative. Her performance brought loud approval from students, who stomped on gym bleachers to show their appreciation. "I was speechless," said David Pineda, a junior whose family comes from El Salvador.
Obama gave a short speech that was simultaneously translated into Korean, urging the teens to find and follow their passions. Education is not just about learning geometry and memorizing dates for history class, she said. "Education is also about exploring new things, discovering what makes you come alive, and then being your best at whatever you choose," she said. "That's how real learning, real fulfillment and real joy happen."
Madame Kim also gave brief remarks, praising the school's cultural diversity. That diversity was on display after the assembly in Annandale's cafeteria. as students from Vietnam and Korea shared lunch tables with those hailing from Morocco and the Philippines. A Lebanese junior talked about his plan to build an accounting business and move back to his home country. A Korean senior spoke about his plan to study biomedical engineering at Stanford, Harvard or M.I.T. And students from many countries crowed about the visit from Obama.
"Once you see her, you're like, oh my God. She's right there!" said Alisa Askovic, 16.