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May “Our House” Be Happy

President Barack Obama, accompanied by Education Secretary John B. King Jr., hosts the 2016 National Teacher of the Year Jahana Hayes, center, May 3, 2016, at the White House. Hayes, an NEA member, is now a member of Congress. | Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

 

We were in front of the Supreme Court of the United States when we heard there was a protest underway near the White House. We grabbed an Uber and the three of us headed to Pennsylvania Avenue to check out the situation. It was early February 2017, and Trump had already managed to insult the CIA, the education community, and women across the country.

The march began at the side of the White House and made a right crossing between the Washington Monument and the residence. As we marched down Constitution Avenue, the 2016 New Mexico STOY David Morales nodded at the house and said,

“Remember how happy that place was almost a year ago? Man, look at it now,” and I remembered.

In May of 2016, the Obama administration hosted the State Teachers of the Year for the final time. After completing rehearsal in the East Room, we had the full run of the first floor of the residence as we waited for our “plus ones” to clear security.  The Marine Quartet played cool music, and the food was delicious. My wife insisted my 87-year-old mom had to accompany me on this trip. Once everyone arrived, Nate Ruess and his band started playing, and soon President Obama arrived in the Green Room. He greeted each one of us with a handshake, asked a couple of questions, then posed for  individual photos. Before we entered the East Room, he asked me what I taught and when I told him, he responded, “8th-grade civics. I earned my gray hair just like you have,” he laughed.

After the individual greeting, he met us in front of the risers where we stood, and National Teacher of the Year  Jahana Hayes delivered her speech from his podium. When she finished, he took the stage to congratulate us once again and speak about the importance of teachers and education. I could read his speech from my perch above him and followed along until he stepped back and began to improvise. He was eloquent, drawing applause and smiles from the audience. I could see my mother had found a seat and our eyes met for a moment; she was beaming.

When the ceremony was completed, some people were off to be interviewed by the press, and my mom and I were able to meet. Turns out she was being taken care of by an Army Lieutenant who saw she was getting tired and created a makeshift seat for her. He made sure she was clear of the crowd and comfortable. She insisted I take a photo of “her lieutenant” and he was happy to oblige.

On our walk back to the hotel, my mom expressed to me how magical the whole day had been. She wished my dad were still alive and felt honored in attendance. It was a moment in time she would never forget. Although it was May of 2016, the presidential race was in full swing and change was in the air. In November the change became reality and Donald J. Trump was elected as the 45th president of the United States.

The changes were immediate. By the end of the first week, he had lied about the size of the crowd at the inauguration and forced his Press Secretary, Sean Spicer, to perpetuate it. He went in front of the CIA Memorial calling the press "the most dishonest human beings" and claimed he'd drawn as many as 1.5 million people to his inauguration, despite official estimates closer to 200,000. This would mark the beginning of over 20,000 false or misleading claims from him as of July 9th, 2020. Change was in the air, and the honoring of the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) State Teachers of the Year at the White House was in the crosshairs.

There was already a level of tension between the education community and the Trump administration. At his inauguration, Trump called the education system in America, “a system, flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of knowledge,” and also claimed it was part of an American carnage he planned to stop. The confirmation of Betsy DeVos alienated much of the public school population. She was best known for her unabashed promotion of private charter schools, had never attended a public school, and had donated millions to the Trump campaign.

At the first meeting with the State Teachers of the Year in 2017, the teachers were ushered into the Oval Office to see a sitting Donald Trump; he never stood. There was no real plan as the teachers, Melania, and DeVos gathered around him and the cameras rolled. The guests were not allowed into the ceremony and were relegated to a room in the Eisenhower Executive Office building across the street. There was no real plan so the teachers said the Pledge of Allegiance and later sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing”. It is also known as the Black National Anthem. The 2017 National Teacher of the Year, Sydney Chaffee ,was not allowed to give her speech. Obligatory photos were taken; then the teachers vacated the premises.

The following year, 2018, would be different.

The State Teachers of the Year were permitted to enter the East Room of the White House, and the 2018 National Teacher of the Year ,Mandy Manning, of the Newcomer Center at Joel E. Ferris High School, read her speech. When Trump entered the room after the speech, she greeted him with a handshake, and she presented  letters from her students to him. They posed for pictures and the ceremony ended, but not the controversy. A doctored video showing that Manning had refused to shake the hand of the president appeared on the website IJR Red, racking up over 11 million views. Manning received death threats. The threats were never acknowledged by the chief executive.

The 2019 meeting with State Teachers of the Year would also be controversial as it was first reported Mr. Trump would not be attending and that Secretary DeVos would present Rodney Robinson with an award. In the end, Trump did invite the STOYs into the Oval Office, but the visit was boycotted by two of the State Teachers of the Year. With the COVID pandemic raging, the visit by the 2020 State Teachers of the year was canceled.

Before our 2016 visit to the White House, we were invited to the residence of Vice-President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill. They could not have been more hospitable. They took the time to mingle with us, then addressed us  from the podium. They met with each teacher and guest and then posed for photos. We could roam the first floor of the house and the grounds. My mom and I took advantage of the freedom to step outside by the pool and enjoy the solitude. At one point she turned to me and said, “Mr. Biden seems to be a genuinely good soul,” and I had to agree. With his pending inauguration in January, I hope the country may have turned a dark corner and is moving in a direction to better address the social chasm existing in the country. As Jon Meacham stated in his book, The Soul of America, “The good news is that we have come through such darkness before.” May the White House be a place of hope and happiness again.


John Tierney spent over three decades in the classroom as a social studies teacher.  In 2016 he was named Nevada State Teacher of the Year and in 2017 he became an NEA Global Fellow for China. He was a national facilitator for PBS TeacherLine and  currently serves as the chair of  the Institutional Advisory Council for Great Basin College and as a member of the Nevada State Superintendent's Teacher Advisory Cabinet. When not working in education, he is a husband, musician, fly fisher, dad, and grandpa.

 





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