He is 13, a newly minted teenager growing up in a tough Omaha neighborhood but eager to see history in person — a presidential inauguration.
“To me, it's a great moment in my life that I can tell my grandchildren about,” said Leon Gordon Jr. “I can say that I was there to witness it.”
Leon, who loves history and speaks with a maturity beyond his years, left Saturday morning from Omaha on a chartered bus scheduled to arrive this morning in the nation's capital. The 24-hour, overnight ride by a diverse group of 55 people was organized by Omowale Akintunde, associate professor of black studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
He is glad Leon is making his first trip to Washington on such an important occasion.
“I am extraordinarily impressed with him,” the prof said. “I don't think I've ever seen a more articulate young man with such a command of himself.”
Rebekah Sidzyik, Leon's history and language-arts teacher at Nathan Hale Magnet Middle School, calls him an unusually inquisitive student who asks deep, rich questions and is a student of life.
“He can be anything he wants to be,” she said. “I'd like to go to his inauguration.”
Leon, a seventh-grader, is one of several Omaha Public Schools students whose $600 cost for the trip is being paid from a grant that Akintunde received from the Minnesota Humanities Council. Each student is accompanied by an adult, whose costs also are covered. In Leon's case it is his teacher, who nominated him. (She is paying the cost of the trip for her daughter, Sophia, a fifth-grader.)
Leon said he would be excited to attend the swearing-in of any U.S. president. But because he is African-American, he will be especially moved to stand in the National Mall and witness the second inauguration of the nation's first African-American president, Barack Obama.
“It shows how much we've evolved to have an African-American in office,” the student said after school in a classroom Thursday. In some places several decades ago, he said, “African-Americans had to step off the sidewalk for whites and get treated like second-class citizens.”
Even today, progress on race relations can seem slow. But Akintunde agrees that it is evolving. He cited the inspiring relationship between Leon and his teacher, who is white.
“I believe absolutely that we've made progress,” the professor said. “Rebekah and Leon are the quintessential example of where we are as a nation, a city and certainly in OPS. They are reflective not only that we've made progress with race, but I think we have moved along the spectrum so far that it won't be long before race won't even be a dominant factor.”
Akintunde organized a similar trip four years ago and filmed a documentary, “An Inaugural Ride to Freedom,” which won an Emmy. He is filming another documentary on this trip, focusing on Leon and other young people.
As with four years ago, the people on the bus come from an array of backgrounds in terms of their race, occupation and sexual orientation.
“This president has been at the center of many controversial issues about where this nation is going,” Akintunde said. “We want to have a broad representation of people participating.”
Leon, whose mother is Diane Gray, is being raised by his father, Leon Gordon Sr. Leon Jr. spent a few months last year with relatives in Georgia.
“People don't think of Nebraska as having a rough city,” he said. “They say, 'Do you pick corn?' I said, 'No, I live in an urban area.'”
Living in parts of north Omaha means being exposed to higher crime rates than other parts of Omaha. Leon hears the gunshots.
“Often,” he said. “Every night. In some of the neighborhoods I've lived in, it's been like that for a long time — an everyday thing. Enough is enough. You hear on the news that somebody died and you think, 'I just saw 'em yesterday.' It's crazy.”
Leon is an avid reader, and at an early age he finished Alex Haley's “Roots,” about the author's ancestry of slaves. The young Omahan has researched his own genealogy at public libraries but says records from the slave period are scarce.
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Worrying about the poor example that young people sometimes receive today, Leon quotes social critic James Baldwin: “Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.”
Leon likes blues and jazz music, and he sang a piece by singer-songwriter R. Kelly at a school show before Christmas. Leon knows about the school's mascot, the Patriots, and its namesake. Nathan Hale, who served in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, is said to have regretted that he had but one life to give for his country.
“He was a spy and he died protecting his country,” Leon said. “Yes, sir, he was a hero.”
Besides the inauguration and parade, Leon looks forward to touring Washington and seeing the Smithsonian Institution, the Lincoln Memorial, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial and more.
When I mentioned that King visited Omaha a few years before his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, Leon knew the year. “I believe it was in 1958,” he said. “I've studied Omaha history.”
And now he will witness first-hand a piece of the nation's history.
Contact the writer: 402-444-1132, firstname.lastname@example.org
Students traveling to Washington
Omaha Public Schools students scheduled to travel to Washington, D.C., for the inauguration Monday of President Barack Obama:
» Curtis Collier and Markeyia Bogard, juniors, South High
» Davionce Evans-Fountain, eighth-grader, King Science and Technology Magnet Center
» Trevor Moss and Angel Stock, seniors, Blackburn Alternative
» Leon Gordon, seventh-grader, Nathan Hale Magnet Middle School
» Kelsey Wigmore, Jenna Purdy and Abril Garcia, sophomores; Keondre Jackson, Taylor Eckley, Madison Mcallister and Tyler Miller, freshmen, Northwest High