From the moment I began working at Philip’s Academy Charter School with ecospaces in Newark, NJ, I knew my service site was special. Rooftop garden, self-operated dining room and locally sourced menus, teaching kitchen: check, check, check! Hundreds of creative, enthusiastic and sassy students and their nurturing teachers: check and check! Philip’s had it all… well, at least that’s what I thought.
Cue dramatic music.
But then came FLOTUS.
Cue end of dramatic music.
Phase 1: The Freak Out
When someone calls and tells you the First Lady of the U.S. is going to visit your school, you say yes. When that someone is Deb Eschmeyer, White House Senior Policy Advisor for Nutrition and co-founder of FoodCorps, you jump around and pant yes into the phone then call your Site Supervisor and cry and freak out together. It’s just what happens.
Phase 2: Go Mode
For days straight you basically live at school, working with students who don’t quite understand the urgency in your voice when you implore them to take extra care and color inside of the lines and plant in perfect rows. You throw your normal schedule to the wind and adopt the “FLOTUS is Coming!” schedule, having secret meetings with White House staffers and Secret Service Agents who ask you where Michelle Obama should sit, stand, and breathe the same air as you. Not the last one directly, but it was implied.
Phase 3: The Hard Part
When Michelle Obama visits your school, she can’t meet everyone. It is a hard truth to hear and harder to deliver, but you try your best to ensure every student participates. You involve as many students as possible, knowing that in years to come they’ll remember that they made the poster that Michelle complemented or tended the garden that Michelle praised. So you take as many classes out into the garden as humanly possible so they can plant kale starts, and happily sweep and weed because they’re excited to be a part of this incredible moment in history.
Phase 4: The Best. Day. Ever.
You get to school and, having spent the past few days in superhuman “Go Mode.” Now, you walk in circles pretending you’re doing something important, but really just pacing to get out your building nerves. It’s hours until Michelle’s here – minutes, seconds. Then she’s literally standing on the opposite side of a curtain from you while a city official extends her hand, to which Michelle Obama replies, “I prefer hugs!” Then it’s your turn so you get a hug and you want to crumble between her sculpted arms and you think to yourself, “Where do I go from here?”
Phase Five: The Take-Away
Being able to say that you met Michelle Obama is cool, but what’s even cooler is the fact that one of today’s most important political figures is recognizing school gardens because she believes they are important. FLOTUS cares about you and your work. She cares about the kids you work with (even the ones who sometimes yuck your yums), and she cares because she knows that these are the kids who will grow up knowing why good food is good for our bodies. So we keep taste testing and building gardens and teaching plant part yoga. We keep nudging kids to finish their lunches and add veggies to their plates. We engage with community and wear our green shirts like a badges of honor. That’s where we go from here.