They're Cheering for Our Barry
"I had a lump in my throat; I had to exhale. And I was thinking, ... 'They're cheering for our Barry'"
Punahou Travelers, Strangers Alike Feel Pride for One-time Student
In the predawn hours of Jan. 20, more than one million people began pouring onto the streets of Washington, D.C., to witness the inauguration of Barack Obama '79. Streets within the immediate vicinity of the U.S. Capitol had been blocked to traffic, so crowds coursed toward the heart of the city. It was a pulsing sea of humanity: college students with miniature U.S. flags sticking out of their backpacks, fathers with toddlers hoisted onto their shoulders, grandparents with sleepy grandchildren in tow. An atmosphere of purposeful exuberance reigned.
Among those making the journey were Paula Kurashige, Obama's former class dean; Eric Kusunoki, his high school homeroom teacher; and their families. They joined the hordes trekking to the Capitol entrances, where their color-coded tickets would allow them to stand within 200 yards of the swearing-in ceremony. Beneath her wool coat, Kurashige wore three layers of thermal underwear and two cashmere sweaters. "And I had two pairs of thermal socks," she said, laughing.
Prepared as they were for the cold, the Punahou colleagues could not have anticipated the massive lines that greeted them, as ticketholders swarmed the entrances to the Capitol.
"It took us three hours to move three blocks," Kusunoki said in disbelief, describing the line that snaked half a mile from the entry gate.
Packed together in close quarters, people struck up easy conversations with each other. Anthony Ching, a youthful legislative aide for Rep. Neil Abercrombie, waited with several officemates. "It's awesome Barack Obama is from Hawai‘i," enthused the Kahuku High School graduate, "although that's not the only reason we're proud."
Standing next to him was Herb Jordan, a professional musician from Los Angeles. "What he [Obama] represents in terms of our evolution as a culture, as a civilization, is unique," said Jordan. "What strikes me about him is he tends to find the midpoint at which various people can meet; he sees the strength in that diversity. If you think in metaphorical terms, our working together is like creating an alloy."
That sense of cooperation filled the line, as sections broke spontaneously into song. "Amazing Grace" floated up into the chill air; "I Will Survive" and "My Girl" (transposed to ‘My Guy') got neighbors swaying and stomping in place.
Once past security, Kurashige and Kusunoki dashed to the blue section, arriving just in time to see Obama enter the stage. They watched the JumboTron as their former student rose to take the presidential oath of office. "There was a palpable energy around us, yet a kind of reverence," noted Kurashige. "People were really listening while he was being sworn in."
With his left hand resting on Abraham Lincoln's bible, Obama raised his right hand and repeated the words, "I, Barack Hussein Obama, do solemnly swear ..."
Kurashige recalled feeling a tumult of emotions. "I thought about all the people who supported him throughout his life, but who could not be there," she said. "I also felt a sense of pride, not only because he was from Punahou and Hawai‘i, but because he was being honored by so many people."
When President Obama concluded the oath with a firm "So help me God," the crowd that filled the Mall erupted with a roar. People whooped, pumped their fists and hugged their neighbors. Some stood quietly, tears in their eyes.
"To be part of this moment is breathtaking, humbling and exciting," said Melissa Stuckey, 30, a doctoral candidate in history at Yale University. She was with friends Christen Smith and Phil Goff, a self-described trio of "overjoyed university professors," all African-American, who were eager to take up the work ahead.
"It's moving to see so many people participate," said Smith. "To know that there are school kids who are growing into this along with elders who thought they would never see this moment. There's no way to describe how moving and inspiring it is to be here."
The band struck up "Hail to the Chief" and a volley of cannons echoed in the distance. Estimates are that 1.8 million people converged on Washington, D.C., that day. Many found themselves looking firmly to the future, but at least one person couldn't help but also look back.
Asked about his reaction, Eric Kusunoki answered: "I had a lump in my throat; I had to exhale. And I was thinking, they're cheering for our Barry."