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Students to get a firsthand civics lesson at inauguration

Teens from several local schools headed to D.C. for ceremonies

POSTED: January 16, 2009 11:25 p.m.

Students headed to D.C.

Watch students from West Hall Middle School and Riverside Military Academy explain their plans to attend the inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama.

SARA GUEVARA/The Times

Gainesville High School senior and ROTC Lt. Cadet Jerrald Fox, 17, plans to attend the inauguration as well. There he will have the opportunity to meet and speak with Al Gore, Colin Powell, Lance Armstrong and other political figures.

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Flowery Branch High School senior Virginia Foster cast her first presidential election ballot Nov. 4. Turns out her vote wasn't for the man who won.

Despite the disappointment she felt on Election Day, Foster said she's elated to be one of about 100 Hall County students venturing to Washington, D.C., this weekend to participate in the inauguration of Barack Obama.

"I voted and I did my part, so I'm going to have to love him for the next four years," she said. "I have to respect him for taking on the challenge."

Foster, the first chair clarinet player for the school band, is one of 80 Flowery Branch band students who boarded two charter buses at midnight Friday bound for the nation's capital.

After driving all night, the band will check into a hotel in Annapolis, Md., and will perform Sunday at the Heritage Festival held at George Mason University. Following the performance, students will attend a formal ball, where the competition awards will be doled out.

Before Tuesday's inauguration, Flowery Branch students will explore the Smithsonian museums of American and natural history and the National Air and Space Museum. Students will also get a chance to visit a modern art museum and Arlington National Cemetery.

Tuesday, students will check out of their hotel by 5:15 a.m. in time to make their way down to the national mall to view Obama's swearing-in ceremony at noon.

While some band students admitted they were most excited about getting dressed up for the ball or seeing the Lincoln Memorial for the first time, Foster, 18, said it's the inaugural ceremony she is looking forward to the most.

"I don't know anyone who's ever gotten to see an inauguration. Usually I would just watch it from home," she said. "I look forward to telling my kids I was at this historical inauguration."

Although Foster said she didn't support Obama's campaign, she said she hopes he will bring change to the nation in the form of more jobs and bringing U.S. troops home from overseas.

Flowery Branch senior and brass captain Michael Bermejo, 17, said the inauguration will be significant to him because he'll see his new commander in chief sworn in. After graduation, Bermejo is enlisting in the U.S. Marine Corps.

"My recruiter said no matter who is president, we're going to fight for our country," he said. "As long as the Marines stand by the president, I think our country will be safe."

While Bermejo has yet to enter the service, four local students already in uniform are heading to Washington as well.

Lt. Jerrald Fox, a Gainesville High School senior and JROTC cadet, will join Riverside Military Academy seniors Master Sgt. Julian Onyekwere and 2nd Lt. Ronald Hilley and Riverside junior Staff Sgt. Miles Schmidt in attending the three-day Presidential Youth Inaugural Conference in Washington.

The four were among a handful of students nationwide selected by school officials, community leaders and members of Congress to participate in the leadership conference. The cadets all fly out of Atlanta this afternoon.

In Washington, they will attend the inaugural ceremony and parade, and will also attend the Congressional Inaugural Ball. At the youth forum, cadets will be able to interact with scheduled guests Colin Powell and Al Gore, and also may get to dine with seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong.

Onyekwere, 17, said he found out he would be attending the inauguration last school year, but didn't yet know at the time whose swearing-in ceremony it would be. He said he was excited to attend the 2009 inauguration either way, because history would be made by both campaigns: Sen. John McCain's seniority and Gov. Sarah Palin's gender or Obama's race would mark firsts either way.

"I feel if there was any inauguration to go to, it's this one, because this is history in the making," Onyekwere said. "Just the fact that you were a part of that is you being a part of history. I feel humbled I get to go."

Not to be outdone by high schoolers, 13 West Hall Middle School eighth-graders will fly out of Atlanta today and spend nearly a week in Washington, D.C.

Through the Close Up Foundation, West Hall Middle School students will interact with students from all over the country in citizenship, world issue and democracy workshops at their hotel. They'll also get to tour the national monuments as they are lit at night, and will visit Capitol Hill, Arlington Cemetery and a few museums before they return Friday.

Chris Turpin, the North Hall Middle School social studies teacher who arranged the trip, said students also scored tickets to attend the inauguration.

And it's the cream of the crop of North Hall Middle students that are going, he said. To be eligible for the trip, students wrote homework essays on the characteristics of a leader and what type of qualities they believed befit a president.

"They had no idea there was an opportunity for them to attend the inauguration," Turpin said.

Twenty essay winners were chosen and 13 helped to raise funds and attend.

Lizzy Clements, 13, said she found out this spring she was going to the inauguration.

"Me and my friend were, like, freaking out," she said. "We had heard a rumor that the prize of our essay was getting to go to the capital. I couldn't believe I was getting the chance to go."

Lizzy said this will be her first trip to Washington. She said she's excited her first trip to D.C. will be to watch the inauguration of the United States' first African-American president.

"It's amazing," she said. "It shows the color of your skin doesn't matter, You can be anything you want in this country."



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