HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — Barack Obama started out as homework at Ludlum Elementary, an idea by teachers in 2008 to turn the upcoming election into a year-long lesson plan. But the school’s mostly black and Hispanic students quickly came to see themselves in Obama. His message of change became a rallying cry for their own lives in this town plagued by drugs, gangs and violence.
So after the election — before he could even be sworn in — the children persuaded officials here to make theirs the first school in the United States to be named after Obama.
“It was the best moment of my life. It was like we became linked,” said Teonte Jackson, who was then in the fifth grade. “Just as Obama was making history as the first black president, we were making history by becoming the first school named after him.”
To the nation, Obama’s election was a historic and cultural milestone, an electrifying moment when the seemingly impossible became real. Over time, however, the intensity and promise of that moment has faded, giving way to a more nuanced reality.
For students at Barack Obama Elementary, the election cut especially deep. Obama reoriented their sense of race and mobility in complicated, and at times confusing, ways. He is the only president most of them have ever known. Growing up under the shadow of Obama’s name, some have worried whether they have adequately lived up to it. Others have puzzled over what it represents.
But its most lasting effect has been their struggle to reconcile the hope they once felt as children with the reality they now see around them as teenagers.
“The new name meant so much to all of us, but for the kids it was deeper,” said Jean Bligen, who was principal at the time. “It was someone they could look to as a hero, as a path. They could point to him and say, ‘If he could do this, I can do anything.’ ”
The village of Hempstead was once the hub of Long Island commerce. But in the 1960s and 1970s, commerce moved elsewhere. Upper- and middle-class families soon followed, sending this New York suburb into a spiral of decay. Today, Hempstead has a population of 55,500 and one of Long Island’s highest crime rates.
Hempstead’s schools have followed its trajectory. Graduation rates and test scores are low. An influx of immigrants has brought a flood of students who struggle with English. Squabbles among school board members and district leaders have led to controversy, turnover and reprimands from state leaders for sloppy finances and poor performance.
“Our kids often don’t have it easy,” said Dawn Lopez, who teaches fifth grade. “Because of that, you see teachers here go to incredible lengths for their children.”
The election project in 2008 was part of that effort.
The school was still called Ludlum in those days, named after a school board president from Hempstead’s days of prosperity.
As the school year began, Samantha Alburez, who was 10 at the time, remembers her teacher trying to explain the electoral process. The teacher split the class into teams and had them research differences between the candidates, Obama the Democrat and the Republican Sen. John McCain.
To Samantha, the answer was obvious: race.
She remembers looking around her neighborhood that year and realizing suddenly how race seemed to explain so many of the divisions in her life. On her street, she noticed for the first time that Hispanic families like hers lived in cramped apartments with problematic plumbing and no shrubbery. Meanwhile, white families lived across the road in apartments with grassy courtyards where Samantha was never allowed to play. She remembers watching the superintendent, who regularly ignored her parents’ phone calls, walk to the courtyard apartments to fix their toilets.
“The more I looked around, the more I realized how messed up it was,” Samantha said.
She also remembers her shock upon learning about Obama’s life. One detail in particular gave her pause: Obama had done drugs as a teenager.
“I told my mom, ‘Wow, this guy might be president? Maybe that’s not such a good idea.’ ”
Samantha’s mom — an El Salvadoran immigrant who had worked as a housekeeper and nanny for rich Manhattan families — told her: “A person’s past doesn’t define who they are. What matters is the direction you’re going in and what you’re doing to get there.”
By then, almost all the kids in Samantha’s class were rooting for Obama.
“It wasn’t just a matter of someone who looked like them,” recalled her fifth-grade teacher, Bobbi Murray. “I think what resonated more was that he grew up, like them, without a lot of resources. He grew up without a father. His dream was like their dreams: to make things better for themselves and their family.”
Eventually, Samantha became one of Obama’s biggest fans at school.
When you’re at the top, she explained, all you see are the beautiful things at eye-level. Maybe someone like Obama would know what it’s like to be stuck at the bottom.
The centerpiece of Ludlum’s election project was a mock debate. Teachers held auditions for the roles of Obama and McCain; their running mates, Joe Biden and Sarah Palin; and a phalanx of reporters and moderators to grill them onstage.
Teonte Jackson, then 11, decided early on to try out for Obama.
Teonte had just transferred to Ludlum from another school, and being the new kid meant a chance to reinvent himself. No longer would he be quiet and timid, he vowed, afraid to even step onto the basketball court for fear of looking like a chump.
“I wanted to build up my name and come in as a leader instead of a follower,” he said.
Those two categories, Teonte believed, determined so much in life. Followers let others make decisions for them, he explained. Fear of judgment dictates their actions. So they spend their lives chasing someone else’s footsteps.
A leader, however, makes his own path. What better way to become one, Teonte figured, than by playing a man running to be the world’s most powerful leader?
In some ways, he made for an unlikely Obama. Teonte was one of the shortest kids in fifth grade, and few knew his name. “But he had this powerful voice,” said his teacher, Eileen Garbe, now retired. “I could see him becoming a real politician as an adult. He had stage presence.”
Teonte and others were asked to research Obama’s and McCain’s stances on issues such as the war in Iraq and the sinking economy, and to synthesize them into an 11-page debate script.
For weeks, Teonte memorized his lines as he studied Obama on TV alone at night. He noted the deep voice and forceful hand motions, the way Obama often gazed with confidence into his listeners’ eyes.
On TV, Teonte also saw pundits criticizing Obama. It reminded Teonte of things he often imagined haters at school saying about him. Obama’s all hype, the pundits said. He lacked experience. He’ll spend his time helping black people instead of the country as a whole.
What struck Teonte was that none of it seemed to faze Obama.
On Oct. 15, 2008, Obama and McCain met for their final debate at Hofstra University, located just a few blocks from Teonte’s school. Many families spent the night crowded outside the arena trying to catch a glimpse of Obama.
The debate was a slugfest, the most combative of the campaign. Obama spent most of it arguing for change and the opportunities it would bring. “What you’re proposing is eight more years of the same thing,” he told McCain. “And it hasn’t worked.”
Nine days later, the students of Ludlum Elementary held their own presidential debate. By then, Teonte had his lines and new persona down cold.
“I actually spoke like him that night, in that deep voice,” he said. “And I looked right at the audience, no hesitation.”
The crowd responded with a standing ovation. The mock debate, in fact, proved so popular that Teonte and the other kids later staged an encore for the entire neighborhood.
And in the days that followed, Teonte’s plan played out exactly as he had hoped. Kids he had never met knew who he was. They all started calling him “Little Obama,” a nickname he wore with pride.
A few days later, the students held a mock election. Obama won by a landslide, 257 to 28.
For Teonte, the victory was personal. “It was like they were voting for me.”
When the real Election Day arrived a week later, the school felt ready to explode with anticipation. For some children, it was strange to find themselves caring so deeply about something so adult.
“My biggest concern up to that point was whether Power Rangers would beat the bad guys,” said Jalani Johnson, a soft-spoken boy who played Biden in the mock debates. “This was so much bigger.”
Like Obama, Jalani had little involvement with his father and mostly spent time with his grandfather. As Election Day neared, they watched the news together after school and discussed what Obama represented.
Jalani’s grandfather, who had grown up uneducated and black in the South, had built a career from nothing. As an adult, every president he ever voted for, from Reagan to Clinton, had left him disappointed. But this young guy Obama, he told Jalani, seemed different.
By election night, Jalani was so desperate for Obama to win that he retreated to his grandparents’ bedroom out of fear of disappointment. “When my grandpa came in and told me he’d won, I just lost it. I started jumping on the bed and yelling,” he said.
The students launched their own campaign soon after.
A street in Hempstead had recently been renamed for then-Gov. David A. Paterson (D), New York’s first black governor. As the idea of Obama Elementary started spreading among students, the teachers turned it into another assignment: Write a persuasive essay arguing for the school to be renamed.
They chose two essays — Jalani’s and Samantha’s — to be read in front of the school board. So on Nov. 20, 2008 — while Obama was still in Chicago picking Cabinet members — Jalani headed, with his mother and grandparents, to his first school board meeting.
Samantha spoke first, arguing that just as Obama symbolized the importance of diversity, so did their school. Then it was Jalani’s turn.
He talked about how this was a historic moment and how it should be commemorated for future generations.
Before the meeting, there had been resistance to the name change, said Betty Cross, who was then on the board. “Some said it’s too soon. Let’s see how he turns out.”
But after Jalani’s speech, the board voted unanimously to listen to the kids.
For Jalani, the moment confirmed everything he had been told about the transformative nature of Obama’s election. “This was like proof of the whole principle.”
Almost immediately, the new name sparked a euphoric bedlam. TV and newspaper reporters flocked to the school. They all wanted interviews with Teonte, Samantha and Jalani.
A local business owner bought sweatshirts for all 460 students emblazoned with the new school name. Another decked the gym in patriotic bunting and bought a life-size cutout of Obama for the lobby. For weeks, teachers, parents and students posed for pictures with the fake Obama.
The music teacher composed a new school song, titled “Do You Hear the Sound of Change?” And the school’s new motto became “Yes, we can!” — invoked each morning during school announcements.
Then, the school year came to an end.
For Samantha, it meant moving up to Hempstead’s rough-and-tumble middle school. Kids there carried pocket knives and got into fights over boyfriends and drugs. She had to arrive early every morning to get through the metal detectors.
While pundits on TV talked of a new post-racial America, Samantha’s resentment of white people only grew. She remembers watching movies such as “The Parent Trap” and “Mean Girls” and noticing how white girls in them seemed to have everything she did not.
The tipping point came when a 15-year-old Hispanic boy who lived in her apartment complex was stabbed to death outside school by gang members who wanted his cellphone.
Samantha’s mother gave her father an ultimatum. He had one year to move them to a safer town — a town, it would turn out, that was almost all white.
On her first day at school in Deer Park, Samantha was openly hostile. “If someone started speaking to me, I’d talk back in Spanish and pretend I didn’t know English,” she said. When that didn’t work, she told some classmates outright: “I don’t like white people.”
A boy sitting next to her in art class shot back: “Not everyone is what you think. Yeah, I’m white, but I’m Italian. It doesn’t mean a thing.”
He pointed out another white kid in their class still using a flip phone because his family couldn’t afford smartphones. He introduced her to a white boy who was adopted by a black family. By the time Samantha reached high school, the white Italian kid from art had become her boyfriend.
These days, Samantha looks back on 2008 with both pride and embarrassment. She thinks back to her school board essay on the importance of diversity and sees the irony.
At age 10, she said, racism seemed like such a simple and ridiculous idea. Extinguishing it — especially after the election of the first black president — seemed to be just a matter of time.
At age 17, the world appears less black and white.
She said that doesn’t make her childhood ideals any less real. “But I guess what I realize now is that it’s hard for any one person to change how people feel.”
Change for the better at Barack Obama Elementary has been elusive, as well.
Since its renaming, the school has seen four principals, with one fired under such contentious circumstances that it ended up in court. Betty Cross, the school board member who pushed for the new name, was removed last year amid allegations of voter fraud, which she disputes. Meanwhile, test scores have remained frustratingly low.
Fourth-grade teacher Rosetta Langlois said she thinks often about those students from 2008. She has tried to explain the symbolism of the school’s name to her new students, but she worries they don’t truly understand. She can imagine one day soon when Obama will be just another school name, like George Washington or John F. Kennedy.
So this fall, Langlois gave her class a writing assignment: Draft letters to the White House asking Obama to visit his namesake school — something he hasn’t done, despite numerous entreaties over the years.
“Butter him up a little. That’s part of persuasive writing, too,” Langlois told her students on a recent morning. “But think about what it would mean to you if he came. Tell him how it would make you feel.”
A few miles away in Queens, Teonte, too, has been trying to recapture the magic of 2008. For him, the transition to middle school was devastating. He traces his struggles to the moment in sixth grade when his math teacher introduced the concept of integers.
“She handed out worksheets and started doing it on the board, but it just wouldn’t process in my mind,” he said.
After failing that class, he quickly reverted to his old pre-Obama persona — quiet and withdrawn. The potential and power he once felt — to change himself and the world around him — was replaced with a crippling fear of failure. By ninth grade, he was skipping school most mornings just to avoid math.
Now 18 and desperate to graduate, Teonte fears time is running out. To receive a diploma this year, he must pass a series of state-mandated tests called the Regents, including one specifically for math. He said he spent all summer practicing on old versions of the exam but didn’t pass once.
Teonte has continued tracking Obama in the news over the years. Of late, he said, he has noticed growing difficulties for the president, as well — people blaming him for not living up to the hype, for race problems that seem worse than ever, for not doing enough for the minority communities that once believed in him most.
Teonte said he often feels a reflexive urge to defend the man who first taught him to be a leader.
“I see the tough decisions he’s had to make. And I see all the people second-guessing him and trying to bring him down,” Teonte said. “But you never see him second-guessing himself. I guess that’s part of being a leader, too.”
All these years later, Teonte said, it feels sometimes like he’s still studying Obama, still trying to find that man he once played onstage, full of promise and possibility.
Alice Crites contributed to this report.
About this article: In 2008, voters elected the first black president in U.S. history. This article is the first in an occasional series examining the cultural legacy of Barack Obama.