Michael Harris, an eighth-grade student at Roton Middle School, couldn't believe how close he was to the president of the United States. He never though he'd be seated at the Arena at Harbor Yard in downtown Bridgeport, some 30 yards away from President Barack Obama.
"When he walked into the room, I felt a rush of energy," Harris said.
Roton Middle School Assistant Principal James Crouch and teacher Donald Burr accompanied a group of students from Roton's Aspiring Males club (the "RAMs"), a leadership development program for a select group of young men, to the Moving America Forward Rally held last month.
Several Democrat politicians running for office--including Senator elect Richard Blumenthal and incumbent Congressman Jim Himes--delivered moving speeches. The keynote speaker and much awaited guest of honor was, of course, the President.
And, weeks later, the RAMs were still enthusing about their encounter with the country's Commander in Chief.
"It was awesome," said Charlie Snedaker, when the Citizen visited the RAMs last week. He and his twin brother Jack, also a member of the RAMs, had the opportunity to attend President Obama's Inauguration in Washington, D.C. However, the crowds were so tremendous that they didn't even get close enough to see him from a distance, they noted. The brothers explained that their uncle, who works for the government, encouraged them to come to Washington, D.C., but like the thousands of other Americans who wanted to witness in person the first black man take the presidential oath, they were only able to hear his words amplified throughout the Mall.
In the Arena at Harbor Yard, though, Charlie liked listening to President In the Arena at Harbor Yard though, Charlie liked hearing Obama speak about some of the problems that the United States is presently facing.
"He talked to us about what his administration was doing to try to fix them," Charlie said.
Even families whose political affiliations don't coincide with the President's party felt that it was important for their students to attend the rally.
"They realize that even if they disagree with his politics, he's still the President of the United States," said Crouch. "I had a conversation with one parent in the parking lot before we left and I told her that I understand her feelings completely."
In buses paid for by Roton Middle School, the students left early Saturday morning, on Oct. 30, for Bridgeport.
Arriving at 10 a.m., the young men patiently waited in line until the doors opened at 1 p.m. Burr commented, "The kids were great. They ate their lunch as they waited in line. They were very well behaved."
Once inside, the rally began with several speeches by Connecticut's politicians, including a welcome by Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch.
"It was all absolutely electric," said Crouch.
"I didn't even know who they were because I live in New York and vote there. However, they made me want to go out and support them."
When the President appeared, though, the volume in the auditorium swelled to staggering heights.
"I've never felt anything like it," Crouch admitted.
"He's such a positive influence. He really cares about people and his agenda is sincere."
Although none of the RAMs expressed an interest in pursuing public service as a career, several young men said that they wanted to enlist in the military.
Student Chris Dennis said that he's inspired by those presently serving in the United States army. "They're fighting for our country," he said. John Rodriguez agreed and said that he would like to have the opportunity to protect and defend his country.
"The soldiers have done a lot for me," he noted. "I don't want to be seen as a hero because I go into the army. I would just be doing my job."
Although it's unlikely that anyone could be more impressive than the President of the United States, Crouch plans to have several motivational speakers visit the RAMs Club this year. He's trying to take the club "to another level," and work on developing leadership skills in the young men before they move on to the larger high school setting.
"The life of an American teenager is one that presents interesting challenges and choices. One of our goals at Roton Middle School, beyond academics, is to encourage our students to be socially and emotionally appropriate as they continue to grow into the fine young people they are--and to meet some of those challenges and choices head on," Burr explained
The successful eighth-grade pilot program, "RAM: Roton's Aspiring Males" was led by Mr. Sellers and Burr last year. As the current school year began, another group started for seventh-grade boys.
The seventh-grade group uses the Destination Character program (enclosed in Roton student planners) as a guide for discussion. Among the topics included are respect, responsibility and trustworthiness.
The seventh-grade group also meets after school to view classic and more recent works of cinema, followed by leadership/character trait related discussion.
The eighth-grade group discusses similar topics, but also covers skills like current events, public speaking, making a good first impression and even grooming. Part of the work is inspired by the book "A Boy Should Know How to Tie a Tie," by New York Times best-selling author Antwone Fisher.
Roton curriculum is woven into discussion whenever possible.
"The young men are selected as ones we feel might benefit from RAM because they have shown leadership potential," Burr said.
"The most important element present in the RAMS is its diversity," added Crouch.
The RAMs club is comprised of Latino, African American and Caucasian males. Crouch said that by bringing these three sub-groups together now and strengthening bonds between them, a sense of community will prevail when they graduate from the middle school.
"Now you have friends for life," he told the young men seated before him.
Crouch also hopes to offer the boys alternative responses for future scenarios where they might be offered drugs or alcohol. Through acting out possible responses in improvisations, he wants to show them how to effectively say `no.'
The club meets once a week during the students' art or chorus class.
"I try not to take them away from an academic class," Crouch noted.
Every Friday the RAMs dress up in a button-down, formal shirt and a tie.
Solomon Mills, an eighth-grade student, commented, "It makes me feel more like a leader when I'm dressed like this. We are the leaders in the school and people look up to us."
Student John Rodriguez agreed. "When I put on a shirt and a tie, I act more sophisticated."
Harris added, "Even the teachers look at you differently. They respect you more when you're dressed up."