NORTH LIBERTY– To attend this year’s presidential inauguration in Washington, D.C. was nearly a historical feat in itself. The cold temperatures, unprecedented turnout and increased security did not deter an estimated two million people from trekking to the national mall on Jan. 20 to witness the swearing in of our nation’s first black president.
But Penn Elementary School teacher Jake Cummer made sure his students had front row seats.
An Extended Learning Program instructor for the Iowa City Community School District, Cummer was surprised to learn he and his wife Amber obtained admittance to the presidential inauguration through Iowa’s state ticket lottery. Cummer said he didn’t expect to go at first because it meant being away from school for a week.
“The district’s central office and (Penn principal) Julie Robinson were incredibly supportive,” Cummer said, which encouraged him to head to the nation’s capital.
Cummer decided it was to be a learning experience for his students as well as himself. He set up an Internet blog– a web page with his personal postings– so friends, family and students could track his experience from back home.
“I hope this will allow my students to hitch a virtual ride with me to D.C.,” Cummer wrote as an introduction to his blog. “I take seriously the privilege I have been afforded with this opportunity and want to share my experiences as much as possible. Join me on my journey through tollbooths, traffic, weather, more traffic, huddled masses, security checks, and, of course, the inaugural ceremony itself.”
The Cummers made the cross country trip by car, arriving in Washington D.C. on Sunday evening just as a free inaugural kick-off concert at the Lincoln Memorial was ending.
“It took more than an hour to make what is usually a five minute drive,” Cummer recounted. “There were hoards of people walking across the bridges. The foot traffic on the sidewalks was overwhelming.” While Cummer’s brother-in-law said typical Sundays are relatively quiet in D.C., that evening “felt more like it was New Year’s Eve.”
On Monday, Jake and Amber had to wait in line to get their inauguration ceremony tickets at Iowa Senator Tom Harkin’s office in the Hart Senate building. Learning there were additional tickets to be given away in an impromptu lottery, the Cummers put their names into the drawing, hoping to win tickets for their D.C. family members. Jake was lucky once again when his name was drawn; however, the Cummers decided instead to offer the pass to a woman from Cedar Rapids– someone they met while in the lottery line– who had traveled from Iowa alone, hoping against the odds to win a ticket to the inauguration for herself. On his blog spot, Cummer describes it as an “Oprah moment.”
“All she wanted out of the suddenly lonely trip was some luck for a ticket and it was cool to give her that. I think she hugged me 17 times and started crying as we walked out of the Senate Office Building with her,” Cummer wrote. “This woman reminded me of why I have put up with the trials and tribulations of traveling out here in the first place. It's all worth it.”
The festive atmosphere carried through until the Tuesday morning of inauguration day, despite throngs of people bottlenecked at every turn. The Cummers walked more than five miles that morning as they made their way through D.C.’s 3rd Street tunnel toward the mall before the Capitol steps. All the while, Cummer sent updates from his Blackberry to describe what he was seeing, hearing, and even eating. By the time he had arrived at the back of the Reflecting Pool, Cummer said he realized he had ceased to be concerned about how close he would be to the inauguration ceremony itself.
“It was really about the surroundings,” he said. “We spent seven hours with people from all around the country. It was such a cool collection of sounds and an extremely varied mix of people.”
There was the African American woman from Atlanta, there with her grandson, who described to Cummer how the country had changed for her over her lifetime. There were people who seemed to be quietly, inwardly reflecting on the day’s events, and people on cell phones offering folks back home play-by-plays of each moment.
“The energy was so good. The feeling was positive,” Cummer noted, “and politics were strangely absent. In fact, politics weren’t discussed at all. I had no sense of where any of those people were coming from, politically.
Though the pre-inauguration mood was celebratory, Cummer described the moments of President Obama’s speech as more solemn.
“I thought his speech was good, but it was very sobering, which I think is appropriate at this time. It was practical, but very encouraging and hopeful at the same time.”
One of the most stirring moments came at the end of Obama’s speech − a sudden, stunned silence from the crowd.
“People didn’t leave whooping and hollering like they would from a campaign speech,” said Cummer, “but there was a sense of the reality Obama was trying to convey.”
Back home in Iowa, Cummer attempted to summarize the significance of all he witnessed while in Washington, D.C.
“The history of the moment is undeniable, of course,” he said. “Decades from now, it will be remembered as one of the most important events in our nation’s history.”
Even before the election of the United States’ first black president, Cummer said he had often wondered what historical events he would be able to convey to young people, just as his mother had for him when he was young.
“When I was growing up, I heard stories from my mom about where she was when Kennedy and King were assassinated, or about watching man first walk on the moon. I realized our generation didn’t have much of a history to share. I was worried that 9/11 was the only thing we would have to remember.”
But one of Cummer’s final blog entries, each posted for the young people whose lives he touches every day, offers them this insight:
“Is this, the Inauguration of the first African-American, my moon moment? Nobody knows. Will Obama be a good president? That’s equally as impossible to tell at this point. The only thing we can do is make sure we commemorate the inauguration in a way that will allow our students to tell their kids some day, as vividly as possible, where they were when the first African-American man was sworn in to the office of President of the United States of America. I hope everyone takes a moment to record, in whatever way makes sense to them- journal, photos, recorded word- their thoughts, feelings, and experiences on this, one of the most important days in our shared history as Americans.
“Overly romantic? Maybe. But, in five years, if I have the choice between looking back to today and regretting making too big a deal of it, versus not making a big enough deal of it, I'll take the former. So should we all.”
You can view Jake Cummer’s blog, titled “Destination Inauguration,” at http://jcummer.blogspot.com/