At L’Enfant Plaza metro station, the stationary escalator we were walking up started rolling backwards, dumping us and 40 others onto the overcrowded platform—the first time today I seriously considered the possibility of death by crushing (but oh, there were many more).
Next we stood, first in a remarkably orderly line, then in a happy mob, for 2.5 more hours to get through security. Making friends along the way, we passed the time with trivia, stories about our journeys, and finding any excuse for humor: Some guy named Andy was celebrating his birthday, and gratefully thanked us all for coming to his party. We were happy to oblige.
By the time we got to the Capitol lawn, it was 11:30 a.m. and it was almost time. Though I haven’t seen much retrospective news coverage of it, one of my favorite parts of the ceremony was Diane Fienstein’s reminder that our government has succeeded in transferring power peaceably for the entirety of our history. That fact should indeed be celebrated, elevated.
The breathless cheering when Michelle Obama and Sasha and Malia first appeared on the platform were insane. Waves of sound went backward and forward from one end of the mall to other—the distant roar of “O-BA-MA” approaching and receding like a force of nature.
When W. was shown walking toward the platform on the Jumbotron, he was booed by the crowd (some clucked disapproval of the booers). When he walked onto the platform, there was a stony silence—not a single round of applause from the lawn where we stood.
But when President Obama himself came out, the joy was explosive, cathartic, mesmerizing. As he took the oath of office, the crowd visibly swelled with pride. That was the brief moment tears came to my eyes. It was calmer during his speech—respectful listening, the quiet punctuation of applause (gloved hands clapping make a wicked cool noise in a crowd that big), very large smiles, and a few stoic tears.
It was difficult to process his speech on the spot, but a few lines stood out: …Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America…. … As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals…. …our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint…. …We honor them not only because they are guardians of our liberty, but because they embody the spirit of service; a willingness to find meaning in something greater than themselves.
Everything after that was chaos—contrary to our expectations we saw nary a peace officer anywhere. Those we did see limited themselves to chaperoning extraneous vehicles. Large, confused, and frustrated mobs formed around metro entrances, blocking progress in every direction. After a minor claustrophobic breakdown (the second time I cried today), we did eventually make it home—a 5-mile, 3-hour walk. Tired bones, tired eyes, weary feet, happy soul.
Though there were moments when it felt terribly difficult, of course it was worth it. Many of the stories are being told by the news networks—of the cold, the crowds, the joy, the journeys—but somehow it wouldn’t have been the same to be at home. We are very proud to have represented our families and neighbors and friends who weren’t able to be here. Already the story of today is hardening into the narrative we will remember and retell for the rest of our lives. Pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off—and now the hard work begins.
Hanna Neuschwander is the director of publications for the graduate school. Click here to read Neuschwander’s golden ticket to attend the inauguration: Dispatch #1