by Steven Hale
"It is good to be in Nashville!" says Barack Obama, President of the United States, and the reason we are all gathered in the auditorium of McGavock High School on Thursday afternoon.
"And it's good to be here at Big Mac," he adds, using the school's nickname as a rhetorical wink to the school's students, who have just given him a rock star's welcome.
And they weren't the only ones.
As The Tennessean recalled this week, many presidents have visited Nashville over the years. John F. Kennedy came to Nashville six months before he was assassinated, and Richard Nixon swung through town less than six months before he resigned. Dubya made it here several times.
Barack Obama, the candidate, appeared in Nashville during the 2008 presidential campaign for a debate at Belmont University with Sen. John McCain. But until Thursday he had not been here as the sitting president and it's not likely that he will be again.
As a result, nearly every prominent Tennessee and / or Nashville Democrat is in the house, eager to see the president and (surely) to be seen seeing the president. Among them are Nashville Congressman Jim Cooper and Mayor Karl Dean (both of whom greeted the president at the airport), as well as Memphis Congressman Steve Cohen. State Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle and Caucus Chairman Lowe Finney are in attendance, as are their counterparts in the state House, Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh and Caucus Chairman Mike Turner. You're getting the idea now: Current Tennessee Democratic Party Chairman Roy Herron, along with his predecessor Chip Forrester (a national board member for Obama's grassroots advocacy group Organizing for Action); At-Large Metro Councilwoman and 2015 Mayoral Candidate Megan Barry, plus potential (perhaps likely, maybe even presumed?) candidates At-Large Councilman Jerry Maynard, real estate executive Bill Freeman (who is also an OFA board member), and attorney and major Democratic fundraiser Charles Robert Bone. Democratic state Senate candidates Jeff Yarbro and Mary Mancini (who are facing each other in the District 21 primary). State Rep. Darren Jernigan.
Ashley Judd is here. And so is former Vice President Al Gore.
Naturally, high profile members of the state's ruling party were eager to be seen not seeing the president. Neither of Tennessee's Republican Senators — Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker — are in attendance, nor are any Republican members of the state's congressional delegation. Gov. Bill Haslam had plans to meet the president at the airport, but missed the greeting because Obama was behind schedule and the governor had to leave to get somewhere to meet with someone. State Speaker of the House Beth Harwell, the first woman to hold that office in Tennessee history and a Nashvillian to boot, couldn't make it either.
Not that there would've been much room anyhow. The list of attendees goes on and on: various members of the Metro Council (including Josh Stites, perhaps one of the few conservatives in the room), the Metro school board, John Siegenthaler, former Nashville Mayor Bill Purcell, former Metro school board chairman and another likely 2015 mayoral candidate David Fox.
But there is really only one fish in this pond today — maybe two if you count Al Gore, who will later make his own entrance of sorts to applause from the crowd — and so most all of the aforementioned notables mingle around on the floor of the auditorium for several hours, waiting for President Obama along with students, faculty, volunteers, local reporters, and earpiece'd agents of the Secret Service.
Everyone bumping into their counterpart from another level in the so-called democratic system. City officials and members of congress arriving with general admission tickets so that they all can wait for the president. Student journalists from Hillsboro High School and McGavock trying not to get in the way of local reporters who are trying not to get in the way of Jim Acosta from CNN.
From 1:30 p.m. until around 3:50 p.m. That's when a McGavock student leads the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance followed by another, who sings the national anthem. At 4:13 p.m. a man hops on stage and affixes the presidential seal to the blue podium on stage. Soon, a large group of People We Recognize enter the room, including Cooper, Dean and Renata Soto, founder and executive director of Conexión Américas.
Soto later tells the Scene that she had just been one of about 40 people who had been invited to meet briefly with the president before his speech. She says that, to her surprise, they were each able to have a private moment with him.
"I said 'We're eager to work with you to make immigration reform happen this year, finally,' she says. "And he very confidently said, 'We're going to get it done.'"
As it turns out, Obama also met with the family of Kevin Barbee, the 15-year-old McGavock sophomore who was fatally shot Tuesday night.
Just before 4 o'clock, McGavock's student body president Ronald Elliot introduces the other president in the room.
"I wanted to come here because I've heard great things about this high school and all of you," Obama tells the crowd once he's calmed them down and run through some acknowledgements. "But I also recognize the past couple days have been hard, and have tested people's spirits. Some of you lost a good friend, so I want you to know that Michelle and I have been praying for all of you and the community."
From then on, his speech is as rousing an endorsement for Metro Nashville Public Schools — specifically, the academies model — as one could imagine. Obama praises the program that includes corporate partners in an effort to provide students with chances to get hands on experience out of the classroom with the subjects they're studying in them. For example, he cites students studying business and finance operating their own credit union at the school. The approach hasn't always been popular in all corners of the district, but has attracted national attention in the five years it's been in place.
"The idea is simple, but powerful," he says, suggesting it's contributed to McGavock's improving graduation rate, which has increased by 22 percent over the past 10 years.
"Now every community is different. With different needs, different approaches," he says. "But if Nashville can bring schools and teachers, businesses and parents together for the sake of our young people, then other places can."
"That's why my administration is already running a competition to redesign high schools through employer partnerships that combine a quality education with real world skills and hands on learning. I want to encourage more high schools to do what you are doing."
Toward the end of the speech the president tells a story about someone in the audience. This is one of the most familiar moments in politics. Unless it's your story.
After pointing her out in the crowd, Obama tells the crowd that Sarah Santiago's parents came to America from Guatemala, and that Sarah struggled during her freshman year — in her own words, he says, she recalls being one of the "bad kids."
"But then she took a broadcasting class with a teacher named Barclay Randall," he says, as many in the crowd cheers the name of a teacher they know. "Mr. Randall is over there with the press right now because some of his students are covering this event."
Yes they are. And their teacher is nearly beside himself.
Randall, Obama continues, helped his student to discover a passion she didn't know about. Her grades started to improve, and she won the school's Best Editing award. She got an internship with CMT — a partner in the Academies program — and was later accepted to the Savannah College of Art and Design.
"And she gives credit to Mr. Randle for this," Obama says. "She says 'Mr. Randle gave me a second chance. He saw things I never saw in myself, he's the person who helped me change."
When the speech ends, the crowd is roaring, music is blaring, and Mr. Randle is wiping away tears as he quarterbacks his student staff, urging them into the crowd to catch as many interviews as they can.