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Obama is an inspiration to a 14-year-old watching from Harlem

Students from 34 city public schools and and an influx of tearful well-wishers — including some members of the New York Guard, a family that traveled to Harlem from New Jersey, and city charter school lobbyists — filled the enormous Harlem Armory this morning to watch Barack Obama’s inauguration on three giant television screens.

Just before noon, some children squirmed while students and teachers spoke at a dais. Others sank into their seats and nodded quietly to the iPod music plugged into their ears. But when the CNN announcer declared that, although he had not yet been sworn in, Obama was now officially president, even the too-cool-for-school students stood up to scream. When he took the oath of office, children jumped up and down, grinning, and waved American flags. Adults sitting on the sidelines wiped tears from their eyes.

One former sloucher, Douglas Noble, a 14-year-old eighth-grader at KAPPA II, a middle school in East Harlem, had drawn a picture of Obama on a posterboard and written the words “YES, WE, CAN” at the top. “He showed every black person that, even though you’re at the bottom, you can still make it to the top,” Noble said.

He said Obama’s rise changed his life goals. He had wanted to be a basketball player, but now he’s set his sights on engineering. “Everybody wants to be a basketball player, but I want to be something that’s harder,” he said. “A basketball player, all you have to know how to do is dribble and shoot. An engineer, you have to know a lot more.”

Noble, who wore a hooded sweatshirt and a Yankees t-shirt, sat down for most of the day’s events, even as other students danced around excitedly, but he pushed his chair back and stood when Obama took the oath of office. “I’m showing my respect to Obama for making it,” he said.

The Democracy Prep charter school, a three-year-old middle school in Harlem which will extend into high school next year, organized the event, coming up with the idea of a party in their own neighborhood after the school’s plans to travel to Washington, D.C., for the inauguration didn’t transpire. A group of about 25 students sat on an inauguration committee that planned the alternative event. (A lone student supported John McCain.)

Their Harlem Armory party proved so popular that the entire floor of the Armory today was packed with round tables filled with children. Seats in upstairs bleachers were also filled. Students found blank poster boards and markers at their tables, and they filled the posters with pictures congratulating Obama.

Democracy Prep founder Seth Andrew made the event political, too. Next to the markers and posterboard were postcards pre-addressed to President Barack Obama at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The postcards said:

Dear President Obama:

I want to congratulate you on this historic day and ask you to keep your promise to support more school choice and parent voice in education.

The postcards also included room for students to write their ideas for how to improve America’s schools, and a request: “Please write back if you can.”

The executive director of the New York City Center for Charter School Excellence, James Merriman, sat in the crowd of students alongside Michael Thomas Duffy, who runs the Department of Education’s charter school office. Merriman addressed the crowd, and a press group that works with his organization, Knickerbocker SKD, handled the gaggles of press who converged in Harlem for the event.

“Out of all the choices, I wanted to come to Harlem,” said Cathy Salley, a mother from New Jersey who brought her children to the Armory for the day. “It’s the environment, it’s the camaraderie. This is an experience they’ll never forget.”

There were some moments when the entire room came alive, like when Obama took his oath and students stood up with him and put their hands over their hearts, and when Aretha Franklin sang. One girl, a student at East New York Prep Charter School in Brooklyn, registered a note of disappointment when she realized Obama himself would not be in Harlem. “I was excited because I thought I was going to see Obama,” she said.

The final time the room exploded came via a song the event organizers put on the loudspeaker, after fading out the sound of CNN. It was Natasha Bedingfield singing “Unwritten.”

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