Obama's Visit Inspires Students at Hyde Park Academy
HYDE PARK — As crews packed up television cameras and deconstructed the stage at Hyde Park Academy where President Barack Obama gave a speech Friday afternoon, a small group of high school boys remained in the gymnasium talking and laughing.
More than 500 people packed the gym to hear the president push for gun control laws and other policies he outlined in Tuesday's State of the Union address.
But it was only the small group of students in the "Becoming A Man" mentorship program at Hyde Park Academy that got the chance to speak with the president directly.
"I shook his hand," said Hyde Park Academy senior Robert Scates. "It's something I can tell my grandkids."
Kerron Turner, a junior at Hyde Park, said the encounter was surreal.
"I can't explain it," Turner, 18, said. "You meet the first black president. My heart was pounding, you know, my hands were sweaty."
Obama met with the group of students for about an hour before he gave his speech. Anthony Ramirez-DiVittorio, one of the founders of BAM, said Obama took part in the usual exercises the group does and spoke to the young men about his own experiences growing up.
"Looking at him like, man, this is 'the man' talking to us, but he was so humble," Ramirez-DiVittorio said. "He was talking about his faults growing up, and just listening which was great."
Tyren Thompson, another senior at Hyde Park Academy who met with Obama, said he was surprised to learn of parallels between himself and the president.
"He [was] cool," Thompson said, adding that both he and Obama grew up without a father. "He was raised in a single-parent home. I was too, so I felt like we had a connection there."
Ramirez-DiVittorio said Obama gave "good, challenging" advice to the group, like taking accountability for one's actions, the value of hard work and discipline, and expressing anger the right way.
Those were points the president also touched on briefly during his speech. Obama reiterated the push to strengthen gun control laws that he said could help prevent the deaths of those like 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton, but he also stressed things like early education and the need for positive role models in disadvantaged communities to create "strong, stable families."
It was a message that hit home for the students in BAM as they stood in the back of the gym after most the politicians and reporters had left.
Tyren Thompson said meeting the president "opened my eyes" and said the message was clear.
"Keep pushing," Thompson said. "Even if you think you can't do it no more, just keep pushing."
Scates echoed a similar feeling.
"There's nothing I can't do," Scates said. "This is something that sparked a change in me. I can feel it."