The Night I Met FLOTUS in the Locker Room

I met Michelle Obama in the girls’ locker room when I was wearing nothing but a soggy bathing suit and a broken watch.

It was fall 2011, and I had just started school at American University. And trust me, if I had known the First Lady was going to be hanging by the changing area, I would have worn something nicer, like probably some shoes and a bra. But I digress.

I had been at college barely two months. I had just gotten out of the elevator on my floor when I caught my friend Allison skipping down the hallway shouting something about Sasha and Malia Obama. After listening for a minute I realized she was jumping around because, allegedly, the Obama girls were swimming in the swimming pool—in our swimming pool—taking lessons.

“I’m going down to the pool right now!” she cried.

“I’m coming!” I said, getting back in the elevator I’d just taken.

Allison and I sprinted down to the gym, where a giant glass wall separated the lobby from the pool below.  The glass wall was lined with parents watching their kids swim in the pool.  I then noticed something…off.  In every corner, stationed about twenty feet apart from one another, were straight-faced men in uniform, unsmiling, unfriendly, just standing.

As Allison and I tried to glance down at the pool, one of the men leaned forward, halting us with his eyes.

“What do you think you’re doing,” he demanded, deadpan.

Allison and I glanced at each other.  “We—we—I mean, I—um—”

“We…just wanted to see the pool,” I said.

The man stared at us menacingly. “You can’t do that.”

“I mean, we just wanted to go down to the pool. To swim. In the pool.”

The man gave us the once-over. “All right.”

Allison and I shuffled away from the window.

“Now we’ve gotta actually go down to the pool,” I mumbled as we walked toward the gym, trying not to look behind me.

When we reached the desk, the girl asked for our IDs.  You need your ID if you’re going to use the gym. Or the pool, we learned. In the excitement back in our dorm, Allison had forgotten her ID.

“Can’t I swipe her in?” I asked.

“No.”

“But—I’m a student here,” Allison objected. “Can’t you look me up on the computer or something?”

“No, sorry.”

So we sprinted back up to our building to retrieve Allison’s ID. While we were there, we decided it might be a good idea to grab our bathing suits so we could actually go in the pool. We would go for an undesired swim if necessary, just to see the Obama girls, if they were actually there, of course. And if we were allowed.

We flew back down to the gym, presented our IDs to the girl at the desk, and bounded down the stairs to the basement, where we changed into our bathing suits and tiptoed out to the pool.

From the pool area, we could see a dozen adults watching from the glass panels above.  In the main pool, a large group of middle school-aged girls dove and swam and stood in their sporty swim suits while Allison and I touched the water’s surface with our toes, contemplating getting in.

“I think we should just do it,” I said.  “Then we can say we swam in the same pool as the Obamas. How cool is that. Right?”

“Yeah, okay.”

We slid in. Did a couple lame laps, lifting our heads up every so often to get a glance of Sasha or Malia. We stopped at one end of the pool.

“I think that’s her,” I said.

“Who?” Allison looked at the girl standing on the diving platform. “Sasha?”

“Doesn’t that kind of look like her?”

“I mean, she’s black…”

Though our behavior seems, in retrospect, quite pathic, I don’t think either of us realized it. We kept pretending to swim. On the other end of the pool, Allison squinted up at the giant glass window.

“Does that look like Michelle Obama to you?”

“Where?”

“Up there…in gray?”

I looked. “I mean, I think so… Can you tell, though?” I asked.  “I’m not wearing my glasses.”

“Neither am I.”

“Well, awesome.”

“I think it’s her.”

Then I glanced at my watch. “Shit, shit.” I waited in vain for the second hand to jump back to life. “I knew I should’ve taken this off.  Shit.” I looked around. “We need to stop staring and get out of this pool before the Secret Service comes down here and arrests us.”

I followed Allison out of the pool and into the locker room.

“Well, I’m pretty sure that now we can say we swam in the same pool as Sasha Obama, right?”

When we got back to the bench where we’d thrown our clothes, Allison walked back toward the door. “I’m going to the water fountain.”

“Okay.”

I began to collect my things, located my other sock, shook out my waterlogged watch in the hopes that it would begin to tick again, heard something—

“…honor to meet you…”

My ears perked up. Who was Allison talking to? I went to investigate, turning the corner of our enclave of lockers, and—

There she was. In the flesh. Tall, regal. In an elegant mix of black and gray. Her skin gleamed in the humid locker room air. Her presence was enough to render me speechless. Her smile could probably end wars.

Goosebumps everywhere, suddenly aware of every droplet of water on my skin, I stood, frozen.

“Hi,” she smiled.

I inched away from the scene, backing farther and farther into the small area of lockers where my socks were strewn next to my American University sweatshirt and my ID was somewhere on the floor. Suddenly Allison and I were leaning against the lockers on the other side of where she had been standing. And we just sobbed uncontrollably.

A few young girls appeared at lockers near ours, staring at us. They’d been swimming in the pool with Sasha.

“Oh my gosh!”

“Are you okay?”

“I think they’re crying…”

“Are you guys crying?”

I shook my head, trying to wipe my tears away and stop shaking. “Yeah, no, I’m fine,” I blubbered. “We’re fine…”

The girls gave us another concerned look and hesitantly turned back to their lockers.

Allison and I burst into tears all over again. Trembling, we got half-dressed and fled the scene. Outside the locker room, we were met with a giant crowd of students dressed for the gym, waiting to be let into the locker room. They looked at us funny; I didn’t know whether this was because we had been allowed in the locker room…or because persistent tears were still rolling down our cheeks.

We squeezed past the throng. We made it upstairs. It was a madhouse. At least a hundred students, maybe two hundred, stuffed into the lobby of the gymnasium. All hoping to meet the Obamas. All hoping to meet the Obamas. Hoping to meet the Obamas.

Later, I found out that, when Allison had gone back to the water fountain, she had run into Sasha Obama, who had dropped her water bottle, and Allison had picked it up for her. I also found out that, even though I don’t remember saying a thing, I had said a feeble “Hi” the First Lady.

When Allison and I returned to our dorm, I ran straight into the laundry room and called my mom, crying into the phone about how I should have at least had the gumption to shake her hand!

I went over everything rapidly in my head, replaying every second. Had I really worn a red bathing suit? I couldn’t’ve at least been wearing a blue one? I was a Democrat–what was wrong with me?!

After I got off the phone with my mother, I entered the lounge, only to be made fun of by everyone on our floor because they’d witnessed our crying. A friend invited me to lean on his shoulder, only to mock me about how what I’d done was really embarrassing and stupid. “Yeah, thanks,” I said, sitting up.

Later, when the tears stopped, I looked down at my broken watch. Worth it, I thought. Totally worth it.

#FossilFreedom

I haven’t promoted this blog reel at all because it has served mostly as a way for me to document the little things I have to say as I feel the need to say them. Today I want to express how proud I am to have been a part of the Fossil Free AU campaign at American University.

Back in January, I knew nothing about the fossil free movement. I didn’t really know what EcoSense was. I didn’t even know what ‘divestment’ meant. I’d been invited to a Facebook event to learn more about the fossil free movement that some students at AU were hoping to start, and my friend Sophie was going, so I decided to go also, just to see what it was all about.

At that first meeting on January 14, I knew about three people in a room of dozens, and I barely understood what everyone was talking about. I never considered the environment an issue I cared a lot about. As a Democrat, I cared about the environment insofar as I believed in global warming and tried to turn off the lights as often I remembered to when I left rooms. But I was always more into healthcare, education, and economic development. Learning the intricacies of divesting from fossil fuels would be a totally new topic for me.

So, Sophie and I sat in the general meeting and mostly listened. During the second half of the meeting, attendees were asked to split into groups so that work could be more effectively delegated to those who showed specific interests in certain areas. Sophie and I thought about the different groups that were forming, and I think we had this grand idea that we could lift this movement off the ground, give it wings, and let it fly [fossil] free. We barely had to say a single word to one another: She headed to the Outreach group, and I went to the Communications group.

I got to the Comm group and sat down with maybe half a dozen other people who were also interested in communications. At this point, the fossil free movement at AU didn’t even have a name. That’s how little footing the group had on campus. No name, no logo, no slogan, no Facebook page, no Twitter handle–nothing but a bunch of ambitious kids in a room. Let’s add that I still didn’t know what ‘divest’ meant, and that all I knew was that I wanted this group to succeed. I knew a good cause when I saw one. I was in.

The group of us, at this preliminary meeting, laid out the groundwork for a communications strategy. These kids were entirely un-hierarchical. It was all about equality and teamwork. Which is fine, usually, but not when it comes to comm. Comm is different. You can’t give all 50 kids administrative access to the Facebook page, or just hand out the password for the Twitter account. Messaging is all strategy and can’t be taken lightly. As much as I loved these passionate, well-intentioned kids, Marxism wasn’t really going to cut it here.

First, I designed a logo. (The original logo looked similar, but called the group “Divest AU,” which was struck down early in the process.) I designed a cover image for the Facebook page. I created a Twitter account. I set up a listserv. I opened an email account. I revamped the website. I designed about five different versions of a petition card that FFAU would use to collect over 600 signatures in support of a fossil free divestment referendum question on the April ballot. Today, the FFAU logo is one of the most recognizable symbols on campus. It pops up all over the internet if you search “fossil free AU,” and it has been translated to tons of giant posters that FFAU members have used for rallies, photo ops, canvasses, and other functions throughout the semester.

Once the ball got rolling with these comm/marketing things, I had to disengage myself because I had too many other responsibilities. The comm efforts kind of got away from me after mid-February, but it didn’t matter at that point because FFAU was already on the road to success and didn’t need me anymore. I always considered myself more of a consultant than anything else. I wish I could’ve been more heavily involved, but I had other responsibilities to worry about. I appeared in a few photos here and there, but didn’t really make a huge splash with regard to publicity.

My other role was completely behind the scenes. I didn’t get press coverage in the Eagle (AU’s newspaper), I was never mentioned in Facebook posts by affiliated organizations, such as 350.org. But I know that without the work I did in this respect, the fossil free movement at AU might not have been such a success. My second role was in Student Government.

From October 2012 to April 2013 I served at the Senator for the School of Public Affairs in the Undergraduate Senate. This role allowed me to take initiative in drafting legislation that would change everything for the FFAU campaign. With the help of a few other Senators, the then-Comptroller, and a couple founding members of the FFAU team, I drafted two pieces of legislation.

First, I wrote a referendum that we hoped to include on the ballot for the spring elections. Second, I wrote a resolution that, if passed, would express the Undergraduate Senate’s support for the Fossil Free AU movement. On March 24, 2013, I introduced both the referendum and the resolution (that’s me standing at the podium–super attractive, I know). Both passed almost unanimously (only the Senator who was serving as the Student Trustee on the Board of Trustees had to abstain from the vote, though he would have voted in support had he not held his position on the Board). Members of the FFAU movement showed up to that Senate meeting to offer their opinions during public comment.

FFAU kids campaigned for a long hard week. I only wish I could’ve been more involved in the campaigning; it looked like a lot of fun. They pulled out VoteBot‘s cousin, DivestBot. They took photos. They tabled. They were on fire. It was awesome.

On April 1 and 2, 80 percent of student body voted in favor of divestment. It was a big freaking deal. We celebrated by binge drinking (off campus, don’t worry), and the most dedicated members of the FFAU movement got to work again. This time, the goal would be to reach the Board of Trustees and AU’s President, Neil Kerwin, to persuade them to support a Committee on Socially Responsible Investing (CSRI) and hold an official campus-wide discussion on the merits of divesting the endowment from fossil fuels.

I cosponsored another resolution–a co-active resolution between the Undergraduate Senate and the Residence Hall Association General Assembly. The then-Comptroller of the Student Government created a petition to form a CSRI. FFAU launched its 50 Days of Fossil Free AU photo campaign, bringing in alumni to support the FFAU movement, ideally pledging not to donate to the university until the Board agrees to divest the endowment from fossil fuels. The month of May is/was dedicated to delivering a letter to Neil Kerwin, campaigning at commencement, meeting with the Board’s Finance Committee, and attending an open Board meeting.

The students executing all of these events, actions, meetings, canvasses, and social media plans are some of the most hard-working, dedicated, passionate, and intelligent people I know. I am so glad to have had a part in it, even minimally. I am, as we all should be, inspired by the work that these students have done for the FFAU movement. Amazing things truly can be accomplished when a group of creative people have a common goal and unparalleled ambition. This journey isn’t over, and I can’t wait to see what they can accomplish over the summer and what I can help with come fall.