WriteGirl mentor Katie Geyer and mentee Jackie, age 16
WriteGirl mentee Jackie, 16, joined Exec. Dir. Keren Taylor in accepting the National Arts & Humanities Youth Program Award from Michelle Obama at the White House in November. Jackie’s mentor Katie Geyer, a photojournalist, was granted a White House press pass to photograph her mentee meeting the first lady! The two were separated for most of the day and each emerged with their own stories. They recently sat down to reflect on that day in November when they were invited inside the White House!
What was your first thought when you woke up that morning before going to the White House to meet Michelle Obama?
Jackie: Even though I had been in Washington, D.C., for a few days and had carefully planned every detail of the day ahead of me, I woke up that day thinking it was just too good to be true!
What did you do when you found out at the last minute that you would be getting a White House press pass to photograph the ceremony?
Katie: I only had a few minutes to prepare! I rushed downstairs to the lobby of The W Hotel where we were meeting, carrying a bag full of tangled camera equipment, and wearing an uncomfortable dress that was not meant for a day of photography!
We were separated before we entered the White House – you and Keren were escorted to the East Wing and I was escorted to the press room in the West Wing. I wondered what you were thinking as you walked into the White House for the first time.
Jackie: The first word I thought of was “grandeur.” I had read over that word as I was studying for the SATs and I thought it perfectly described the inside of the White House. There was a string quartet playing a soft melody and I stood there gawking at them.
I remember that day was the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and I found a painting of him on the wall. It was an image that I had seen many times before. John F. Kennedy was standing with his head on his arms, thinking. This was the original painting. And I was looking right at it.
I looked at every part of the hallway, and I even admired how old-fashioned their heaters looked. Because that way when I got home, I’d get to say, “Yeah, even their heaters are special!” The paintings lining the walls were so close to me that I had the urge to touch them. When no one was looking, I touched a painting of Jackie O just to see how it would feel, especially because I’m named after her. I felt like I was in a dream.
What was it like in the White House pressroom?
Katie: Since you want to become a journalist someday, I kept thinking about you and I wished you could hear the newsroom banter between the “scribblers and photogs.” And I wished you could hear the CNN cameraman tell his stories about covering five U.S. presidents!
At one point, I noticed a few reporters walking down a hallway and through a glass door. I followed them and found myself in a room full of reporters, bright lights and TV cameras facing then White House Press Secretary Jay Carney at the podium. He was holding a press briefing on foreign policy!
What was it like to spend the day with the White House reporters?
Katie: I was in an interesting position because I was there to represent WriteGirl, and was therefore part of the story they were covering. But I was also there as a real photographer covering the story for WriteGirl’s publications. I told a few reporters that I was the mentor of one of the youth representatives accepting the award from the first lady. A reporter from Southern California Public Radio pulled out her microphone and interviewed me!
When we entered the roped-off press area of the East Room, the reporters squeezed into the best possible positions. Some of the photographers even had ladders! I was somehow shuffled into the worst possible spot by the back door. I was surrounded by the White House Press Corps. They’ve spent decades covering historic elections and inaugurations and have witnessed some of our nation’s biggest moments. How could I compete with journalism royalty? So I settled into my spot, feeling like I was lucky just to be in their presence.
What was it like waiting to meet Michelle Obama?
Jackie: Keren and I tried to spot you in the press area, but we couldn’t see you. I grew worried! But a while later, one of the program officials turned to us and said that someone was calling us. It turned out it was you waving wildly at us from the other end of the room in the press area! Keren and I half rose from our seats and waved and I remember you snapping a picture!
When the ceremony started, I zoned everything out. I just kept thinking, “Wow, this is happening.” At one point, Keren offered me a mint and I declined because I didn’t want my breath to smell too minty when I talked to Michelle Obama. People were slyly trying to reapply their lipstick but my hands were so sweaty and shaky that I couldn’t even twist the cap off my tube!
What was happening over in the press area?
Katie: When I saw the kids from the other organizations running up to Michelle Obama to greet her with a hug, I started to realize just how special these moments were. I decided it was worth competing for a better view. There was no room to wiggle between reporters, but I noticed a gap between the wall and the small stage we were standing on. On the ground were tangled cables and extension cords leading to the TV cameras and light stands. It was passable, but risky. I knew a miscalculation would mean CNN’s camera would go dark, not to mention what could happen to the guys perched on the ladders in the event of a domino effect. But I couldn't let you down, and I couldn't let myself down. So I braced flat against the wall, spy movie-style, and tiptoed carefully through the cords. I found myself standing in the best spot in the whole press area! And the next group to be called to the stage was WriteGirl!
What went through your mind when you walked onto the stage?
Jackie: I was thankful I didn’t trip over the stairs! At least that was one thing I could cross off my list. When I got on the stage I looked directly at Michelle Obama. It really hit me. I was here. In D.C. In the White House. In the same room as Michelle Obama. Before I even reached her she already had her arms open and I could feel the smile on my face. I was so relieved and happy and suddenly all the nervousness just melted away. I hugged her tightly and I heard some people in their seats say, “Aww” and I heard someone say, “Amazing.” She told me that I should never stop writing. I promised her that I wouldn’t. I nodded to everything she said and I felt my eyes water more with each word. It felt like I was talking with her for hours even though it was only a few minutes. She made me feel tiny because she was so tall, but when I stood next to her I felt more and more confident. I started straightening out my legs and my back. When we posed for the picture, I looked directly ahead. I tried looking for you, but there were just so many flashes that I just gave up.
What was it like photographing me meeting Michelle Obama?
Katie: That was one of the most exciting moments of my life! As I clicked the shutter, I held my breath. I’d never felt so focused! I took a continuous stream of photos, one after another, watching your face as you beamed with pride. It was over so quickly that I was sure I didn’t have enough time to get a good shot. I looked through the photos to find one good shot so that I could start breathing again. And there it was! I got the shot!
What was it like being interviewed by the reporters?
Jackie: Initially, when Keren told me that I’d have to do interviews, I felt like throwing up. But after being up there on stage with Michelle Obama, I had a sudden confidence boost and I found myself going through the interviews in a sort of trance, which is why everything came out so smoothly and easily. I saw you in the press area, but you were being interviewed, too! I couldn’t wait to talk about what had just happened but I couldn’t find you at the White House reception dinner. I wondered where you could be.
What did you do after the ceremony?
Katie: I was escorted back to the pressroom and was interviewed by another reporter. I couldn’t wait to talk to you! But I couldn’t leave right away. The king of Morocco was leaving the Oval Office after meeting with President Obama, and his motorcade was blocking the driveway.
How did you feel when we were finally able to see each other after being separated all day?
Jackie: When I first saw you, I started to frantically wave. I did a little jog and power walk motion to meet you. I wanted to tell you about every moment that led up to this one. Because maybe if I could recount my steps to you, I could believe it happened.
How did you feel when you saw us on the sidewalk outside the White House?
Katie: I was so thrilled to see you and Keren! I remember it was dark and lightly raining, and even though I was carrying camera equipment and wearing that uncomfortable dress, I ran down the sidewalk toward you and Keren! I remember saying, “I need to hug the people who hugged Michelle Obama!” I hugged you both at the same time and I told you how proud I was of you for embracing this opportunity. I had a feeling that you had already started to see yourself a little differently. A little more confident, a little more passionate, a little more powerful.
Looking back on it now, how has this experience changed you?
Jackie: Standing up there in front of all those people, facing my fear of being the center of attention, made me feel more confident than ever that I can achieve my goals. My chances of meeting Michelle Obama were almost nonexistent to begin with, but I met her. I've learned not to live my life guided by statistics. If the chances are slim, it doesn't matter because there is still a chance.