On Hosting President Xi at Lincoln High School

This is my new friend Theo. He was as excited as I was about the whole thing so we ended up taking this photo after President Xi and the Secret Service departed.

This is my new friend Theo. He was as excited as I was about the whole thing so we ended up taking this photo after President Xi and the Secret Service departed.

One of the things that I really enjoy about teaching is the relative anonymity of the profession. We are public servants, but not public figures. I couldn’t imagine working in sales, marketing or politics where I was constantly meeting new people or trying to sell myself (in fact, the idea of that just gave me a chill). As a teacher at Lincoln, I work with a relatively stable staff. I have been there for seven years and at least half of the faculty predates me. I meet a new crop of kids and parents every year, but once I meet them, they’re familiar, we develop routines, become family even. Last week, while students were reading a Ta-Nehisi Coates article, I stood in the back of third period and realized I had eleven siblings of past students and two children of my former HS classmates in the class. Abe Nation is familiar turf for me and I am familiar to them. When I am teaching I am selling ideas and content, not myself. I am not the focus, the mission is.

The last week has blown a hole in all of that.   

I found out about the possibility of President Xi’s visit a while back. As time passed it went from “there’s this crazy idea that might go down, but probably nah” to “Secret Service vans parked by the Abe statue and snipers in the clock tower.” 

As a government teacher, hosting a head of state in your classroom (or one you borrowed for the occasion) is like an classic R&B fan sitting at the mixing board in Quincy Jones’ studio or a soccer fan playing pick-up with Messi or Ronaldo (pick your poison). China is the most populated nation on Earth. Twenty percent of all the people alive right now are Chinese. They are the largest economy on the Earth. China is the most powerful nation in Asia. China is a nation that I was fascinated by as a student and have had the pleasure to visit twice as an adult. I could go on… Having President Xi walk the halls of my school, stand in our auditorium, joke around with the football players from my third period--watching it all was whatever comes after things become surreal.

My favorite part of the visit though was the kids. It’s early in the year, I have all their names down, but we’re definitely still the rapport building phase. I was nervous about how they would behave. Would they understand how big a deal this was? Would one of the boys in the room try to be funny and instead create an international scene or worse get beatdown by Chinese Secret Service (yes, these were actual fears I was having).

After being screened by the Secret Service, while we were being briefed by a Chinese Protocol Officer (there were several, both officers and briefings) a student asked if they’d be allowed to shake the President Xi’s hand. I and the Protocol Officer both (belly) laughed. Fast forward an hour, when President Xi, after his conversation with my students and before departing under a blitz of camera flashes, reached out to shake hands with the front row of the room, there was an audible (and hilarious) burst of co-ed squeals. That moment… that moment, they’ll never forget. The kids were amazing. They got it the importance of the moment.

President Xi concluded his visit by addressing a crowd of nearly 500 students and community members and offering one hundred students from my school the opportunity to travel to China; it brought on a thunderous applause. I ended my night posing for photos and doing interviews with a half dozen Chinese media outlets. Many of you know I recently wrote about my love of travel and particularly my experience teaching and living in China. Now many of my students will have this same opportunity, decades younger than I was when I caught the bug. I hope they grow to love travel as much as I do. I hope it changes their lives as much as it changed mine and I hope that this week is more calm than the last.