Eventually, I will forget parts of what I witnessed on Wednesday. I will not be able to pull quotes from memory like I can now, and the speech will feel like a blink. This blog post is more of a time capsule. I need a way to engrave my experience into my mind so I can share the moment with my nieces and nephews, my kids and grandkids — who will read about the first African-American president in history books and watch videos of his speeches in class. To them, this is what it was like to be there.
Everyone squishes closer together and starts screaming, while I strain to the tops of my tip-toes. My eyes squint through elbows holding up phones, seeking a glimpse.
Then I see him. The president of the United States. Right there — probably 30 or 40 feet away.
I waited nine hours for this. And feeling slightly lightheaded from the heat, the crowd and the dehydration, I was not sure I could wait much longer. But none of that matters now.
“Hello, Tar Heels.”
I think that’s when I start crying.
I don’t consider myself an emotional person. I basically only cry when I mess up or when I watch a particularly moving documentary (or About Time). So obviously, I never thought I would cry over seeing President Obama (Though I did have a dream the night before that I saw the president and started crying, so I suppose I should have been prepared).
“When I first got elected, most of you were probably ten, so you probably don’t remember much.”
I was 13, and I remember. How could I forget?
Everything floods through my brain at once. Reading his website when I was 12 and he was first starting his campaign, watching him debate in the primaries then later against John McCain (his first debate with McCain was on my 13th birthday), celebrating hope with millions of Americans when he was elected in 2008 — the first African-American president.
The photographs of him the night Osama Bin Laden was killed. The videos of press conferences and speeches across the country. The White House turning rainbow when gay marriage was legalized.
Obama has been the president since I was first starting to become politically aware. He has lead my country for over a third of my life. He holds the same office as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. He is not a perfect president (have we ever had a perfect president, though?), but he is the president of my generation, and he has changed America for the better in a lot of ways.
And he is here, talking about how he loves North Carolina — this beautiful oasis of a college that I get to call home. (I can only hear pieces of this, though, because the entire crowd is going nuts).
On the field where my friends and I got annihilated in flag football last year, the president of the United States is telling my Tar Heel family that he wants to hug us. “After. But first, I have bidness. Not business. Bidness.”
A few people around me start laughing. “He is so cool,” someone says. I agree, but I pipe down real quick because I want to know what the bidness is.
Voting. Obviously, he is pushing for Hillary Clinton and a Democratic ticket, but it’s more than that. As he points out injustices related to violated voting rights, I feel like he really cares about each person’s right to vote, and how those elected officials would impact each individual. He is truly a gifted speaker. And he is addressing real problems: the divisiveness and the inequality in America.
As he criticizes the Trump campaign, he says, “I didn’t say, ‘Yes, I can.’ I said, ‘Yes, we can.'”
That sends another little wave of tears, as I remember when I first heard him say that slogan. I lived in D.C. for half of my life, and while I went to the 2012 inauguration (I was watching a Jumbotron by the Washington Monument when he was sworn in), and I saw his helicopter land on the White House grounds one night in D.C. this summer, I never thought I would see President Obama in person. But here he is. It is surreal.
“I don’t want to pressure you, but the fate of the Republic rests in your hands.”
But he says that we shouldn’t be scared of that. We should be excited, because it’s not scary — it’s an opportunity. Because we can make a difference. Sometimes, the cynicism is so great that we can forget we live in the greatest country in the world, that we have so much to hope for, that we can fix these problems.
“It’s not often that you get to shape the arc of history.”
I am captivated by a moment that feels bigger than a moment. I am living in history, and one day, it will all become pieces of a story — waking up at 6 a.m., ripping an apple in half as I waited in line, eating Sunrise Biscuits with my friends, cracking jokes as we crowded together on the field, admiring the natural coolness of the snipers on the roof, and listening to the president speak. I am a spectator with a story I will share forever. But like Obama said, I — like everyone else in the crowd and in the country — am also a shaper.
We are all little pieces of history.