When I boarded the plane to Washington, D.C., for Barack Obamas inauguration, I had no idea what to expect. Id followed every beat of the election, discussed the campaigns, reported from the conventions for Nickelodeons Kids Pick the President, watched the debates and voted for the first time.
I was a genuine 19-year-old political newbie, but I actually surprised myself at how involved I had become. I was part of the young generation of voters who had seriously impacted the outcome. The night Obama was elected president, I really felt like I had done my part. When I found out I would be at the inauguration as a wrap-up of my coverage of the campaign for Nickelodeon, I was beyond excited. I couldnt wait to take it all in and, oh, not sleep unless I had nothing more exciting to dowhich, believe me, wasnt going to happen. I planned on staying up and out as long as I could. Turns out, so did everyone else.
I felt the energy in the air the second I got off the plane. And it wasnt because of the freezing temperaturesI was greeted by a cardboard cutout of Obama. Groups of students ran over and lined up for their picture with it. The best part was that, after the kids were finished, visitors in their forties jumped in and started posing, too. Seeing them just as excited made me laugh out loud. I smiled again at the crowds decked out in Obama pins, T-shirts, hats and ribbons. And that was just at the airport.
I had more of these moments during the five days I was in D.C. than I ever expectedand the best happened when I least expected them. It was the random observations and unexpected encounters with people that I remember the most. I loved that no one seemed to care who you were or where you came from. Just the fact that you had traveled to Washington to witness the historical event was enough to start a conversation with a stranger. I know it sounds kind of cliché, but I really felt an overwhelming sense of unity wherever I went. It was as if everyone was on happy gas.
All the cabdrivers I spoke to told me how excited they were about Obama and that they had never seen D.C. so alive. In the days before the inauguration, people stayed up all night celebrating. It surprised me that those enjoying themselves the most werent my age. I saw moms, dads, even grandparents out and about into the early hours. I guess I figured that by going to youth-oriented parties, Id be surrounded by young peoplebut wow, was I totally wrong. Who cared how old someone was when they were in the groove on the dance floor or watching a live performance? And in the many, many lines, people of all ages and recognition stood patientlyusually for hourstalking to strangers.
There I was at the Declare Yourself inauguration kickoff party with John Legend, Hayden Panettiere, Jessica Alba, Ben Affleck and Jamie Foxx, and the people taking pictures of them were my moms age! When Maroon 5 performed, the same baby boomers were going crazy on the dance floor, gazing up at Adam Levine and singing along to every word. I noticed the same thing during the concert at the Lincoln Memorial. I watched moms and dads dance around the Washington Monument with their kids to U2s City of Blinding Lights.
The little ones were way too young to know what they were listening to, but when they saw their parents moving, they followed. At the Inaugural Youth Concert the night before the big day, I watched kids scream their hearts out for their favorite stars, like Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers. When they got tired, their parents went crazy. I kept thinking that this is what this campaignand now this inaugurationis about. All races and ages, celebrating together and already embracing our new future.
During the inauguration, people who had never met were talking and laughing together, but when Obama spoke, everyone was silent. Some were crying and nodding, with their hands on their hearts. Others held hands. Everyone was glued to the big screens, and when he finished, adults and children began to dance and clap again.
The night of the inauguration was the wildest of them all. At MTVs Youth Inaugural Ball, hundreds of guests in their twenties through their sixties were dancing away barefoot, hand in hand, without a care in the world, to Kanye West and Lady GaGa. At the RIAA and Feeding America Inauguration Charity Ball, I saw Shakira, Russell Simmons and Cher in the crowd, moving to Rihannas performance. There may be hard times ahead, but for that moment, people partied with hope and real joy, as if they had waited for this for years. Now it was here.
I had never been a part of anything like that beforebut neither had anyone else. I kept forgetting it wasnt just first-time voters like me who were witnessing something unfamiliar. The fact that these moments were new for everyone was what made them so special. For those few days, all generations had the genuine excitement and happiness of childrena kind of innocence in the belief that anything can and will get better and that we would help make it happen.