HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — Some schoolchildren stood and recited the oath along with the new president. Others shouted “Amen” at the end of the invocation.
But perhaps no school in the country celebrated the historic inauguration of the nation’s 44th president with more enthusiasm than the hundreds of students at the newly renamed Barack Obama Elementary School in Hempstead, Long Island.
“I was just speechless. I don’t even have the words to explain the feelings,” said Principal Jean Bligen, who won tickets to the inauguration in a lottery, but decided the only place she wanted to be Tuesday was with her students. “It was remarkable. Absolutely remarkable.”
Officials in the predominantly minority school district voted soon after Election Day to rename the school in honor of the Illinois Democrat.
On Tuesday, all 460 students wore navy blue sweat shirts emblazoned with the words “Barack Obama Elementary School — Yes We Can” on their chests.
The school is about a mile from Hofstra University, where the final presidential debate between Obama and Sen. John McCain took place. Students who followed the debates later suggested that their school be named for the new president, officials said.
“I think that they renamed the school because they believe that Barack Obama was a great leader to many people such as myself,” said fifth-grader Esta Thomas, 10, before the ceremony. “Because each of us in our school also want to grow up to be president one day.”
The enthusiasm appeared contagious from coast to coast.
“You go back to Martin Luther King, and this is the dream come true,” said Juana Martinez, 17, a senior who watched the inauguration with 2,700 other students at Manuel Dominguez High School in Compton, Calif., a predominantly Black and Hispanic city south of Los Angeles.
The school made the inauguration a weeklong educational topic, with English, history and math classes studying previous inaugurations and speeches, said Principal Joy Bramlette, who wore an Obama T-shirt.
“Barack Obama is every man’s story for our kids,” she said. “He was raised without a father and by his grandparents, like many of our kids.”
Students from William S. Hackett Middle School in Albany, N.Y., waved small American flags and cheered as they watched Obama’s speech, and some shouted “Amen” at the end of the Rev. Rick Warren’s invocation.
“I think it’s really cool that he’s president because he gets to stop the Iraq war, which has been going on for so long, and he can bring the troops home,” said 11-year-old Maritza Morris, a sixth-grader. “There hasn’t been another African-American spokesman like him since Martin Luther King Jr.”
At Little Rock Central High School, where more than a half century earlier President Dwight Eisenhower sent in troops to enforce integration, more than 200 students watched the inauguration in the auditorium and televisions in classrooms were tuned to the ceremony.
“When you think that 50 years ago, African-Americans couldn’t come into the school, couldn’t get the same education as Caucasians and now the leader of the free world is African-American,” said Afshar Sanati, the school’s student body president, who is Iranian-American. “That’s just kind of awe inspiring.”
Back at Obama Elementary School, fourth-grade teacher Sharon Edmonston’s eyes were still crimson from crying as the new president gave his inaugural address.
“I never thought in my lifetime that I would see an African-American president,” she said. “It brought me back to being about 7 years old and I remember watching the funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King and learning what that was all about. So as I was watching President Barack Obama being sworn in, it’s mind boggling to me. I still can’t wrap my brain around it.”
Associated Press writers Jessica M. Pasko in Albany, N.Y., Christina Hoag in Los Angeles and Andrew DeMillo in Little Rock, Ark., contributed to this report.
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