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When I met President Obama

Last updated on: July 1, 2010 02:26 IST

When I met President Obama


Kavya Shivashankar, winner of the 2009 Scripps National Spelling Bee and the India Abroad Young Achiever Award, was invited to meet President Obama this month.

When will I get to meet the president was my first question after winning the Scripps National Spelling Bee last year. Each year I had heard stories about past winners being invited into the Oval Office. It seemed like it had almost become a tradition for the winner to meet with the President. The fact that I would have the opportunity to meet President Barack Obama was another motivation for me as I studied for the Bee that year. After I won the National Bee May 28, 2009, I could not wait to actually meet the President, and for months, I waited in anticipation for a call from the White House.

After several months passed by without any news of an upcoming trip to the White House, my hope began to dwindle. By the time the 2010 Scripps National Spelling Bee had drawn near, I had come to the conclusion that I wouldn't be getting that call. A new National Spelling Bee champion would be getting crowned June 4, 2010. After that, my opportunity to meet the President would have passed.

June 1, I officially threw away all hopes of going to the Oval Office. My family and I were relaxing that afternoon at The Pavilions of Turkey Run in Virginia, along with all the other 2010 national spellers and their families. The cheerful environment of the barbecue picnic hosted by the Spelling Bee was contagious, and I couldn't help but smile as I watched all the festivities, including my sister Vanya and her friend singing along to a Hannah Montana song on the karaoke machine.

At around 2 pm, my mom excused herself to attend a phone call that she had just received, and I didn't think much about it; my attention was on making my ice cream sundae. Soon after, my mom returned, with a very enthused look on her face. She joyfully announced that the call was from William Jawando, associate director, public engagement, White House. He was inviting my family and me to the White House June 3, and he was wondering what a good time would be. My mom handed the phone to my dad, who talked to Mr Jawando to finalize the time for the meeting. I could not hide my excitement; I jumped up and down. I also couldn't stop smiling for the rest of the day, and didn't hesitate to call a few friends to share the good news as soon as we got back to the hotel.

Image: President Barack Obama greets Kavya Shivashankar, and her family sister, Vanya, and parents, Sandhya and Mirle Shivashankar.
Photographs: Pete Souza/White House Photo

'Meeting the President was a surreal experience'


Soon the time and date was set. My family and I were scheduled to meet the President June 3 at 1645 hrs. The meeting was estimated to be about 15 minutes long, which was the typical amount of time past spellers got to spend with the President. My parents had to fill out a lot of security information, but everything was completed, and the meeting was finalized. My ecstasy did not die for the next few days, as I had been looking forward to this event for over 365 days.

My family and I were very surprised that the President had found time for the meeting this week. He had such a busy schedule, as he had so much on his plate, like dealing with the oil spill, the economy and the situation in the Middle East. Yet he was able to make time to meet us. I greatly appreciated this and this just increased my reverence for President Obama.

June 3, we rushed back to our hotel room from the ballroom of the hotel, where the 83rd Scripps National Spelling Bee was taking place. My sister had just finished the last round to complete the preliminaries. But now our minds changed tracks and we focused on getting ready to go meet the President.

Before I knew it, we were standing in the lobby of the Grand Hyatt, with Tim King, vice president, E W Scripps Company. We had a black limo waiting for us in front of the hotel. The limo was full of animated small talk, as we all were looking forward to the meeting.

After arriving at the White House, we had to show our IDs and pass security. On the walk to one of the side entrances, we took plenty of pictures, and my sister acted as a reporter, asking us questions and filming our responses and reactions on a small flip-cam.

It was a short walk to reach the entrance to the West Wing. Days earlier we had gone on a tour of the East Wing. The fact that we would finally be able to see the West Wing only built our excitement. Meeting William Jawando was a jovial affair. He was a pleasant man to talk to and he filled us in about the meeting and other things going on in the White House.

We were taken in to an inside waiting room. This was almost directly outside the Oval Office. We were talking about the origin of the name of the president's dog Bo and looking at pictures on an electronic picture slide show. Surprisingly, the meeting was on time, as everything had been running smoothly that day at the White House. At some point while we waited, I turned my back on the Oval Office doors, as I chatted with my sister. I could clearly hear my mother's gasp, as the door to the Oval Office slowly opened.

A tall figure stepped out of the shadows and a deep voice greeted me with "Hi Kavya." It was a surreal experience, and everything seemed to play out in slow motion--walking forward and shaking President Obama's hand as he welcomed me inside the Oval Office.

The President congratulated me on my accomplishment, and turned to my parents to congratulate them on the way they had raised me. He mentioned how education was a great priority, after I thanked him for inviting us. It was truly a great honor to have been invited. My family and I then posed for a picture in front of the President's desk.

After that, he handed me a gift bag, mentioning that it was also for Vanya. The gift bag included boxes of White House M&Ms, a White House coin, a blue frisbee, a yo-yo and a box of chocolates. All of these had President Barack Obama's signature on them. The President himself went through all of these items, as he picked them from the bag, held it out for us, and named the objects. I graciously accepted the gift bag, as my sister and I profusely thanked him for his generosity and munificence.

Vanya, who had become very comfortable by then, began to ask a few questions to President Obama. When she first declared that she had a question, the President inquired if she was requesting him to spell a word. My sister said no, and proceeded to ask her question, "Did you name your dog Bo because of your initials" The President chuckled and said that was one of the reasons. The other reason was that the First Lady's father had a dog named Bo, who was named after a famous musician. My sister, being such an animal lover, had been waiting to ask this question ever since she had seen Bo two days ago, when we had come to tour the East Wing. Bo was being led out for a walk, and he walked past us as we entered the White House doors.

Vanya's next question was an invitation. She asked the President if Sasha and Malia (his daughters) would like to attend the National Spelling Bee Finals the following night. The President replied that Sasha was actually celebrating her birthday that day, and she would be having a pool party with her friends at the White House. He did say, however, that the girls would have enjoyed coming.

Then with one final picture, we were led out of the Oval Office. It was a great experience for all of us, but at the moment, it still felt very dreamlike--meeting the president in the Oval Office!

After we walked outside, we took another picture, this time with Mr Jawando. We then returned our passes and exited after one final look at the White House. As we began to walk back to the limousine, it began pouring. Since vehicles are not allowed near the White House entrances, the limousine was about a block away. As we ran towards it, we began laughing and said this was still worth it!

Image: The Shivshankar family outside the White House