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Local students debate significance of Obama inauguration

Students watch President Obama's inauguration Tuesday in Sam Nelson's class at Ridgewater College. Tribune photo by Bill Zimmer

It was a day to study the content of historic inaugural addresses and to search for the dominant themes in a new speech by a new president.

But it was also a day for students to appreciate the significance of the moment as President Barack Obama was sworn in as the nation's first African-American president.

"When I have kids, it will be a realistic goal," said Jordan Shoulders, a Ridgewater College student who is African-American. Shoulders had just watched the inauguration Tuesday in instructor Sam Nelson's American National Government class.

At Kerkhoven-Murdock-Sunburg High School, a civics class watched the inauguration live after reading addresses by Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy. A walk down the hallway during the inaugural address revealed a number of other KMS classes watching, as well.

Teacher Jocelyn Buckentin said she wanted the students, mostly ninth-graders, to understand the importance of what they were seeing. The class period was dedicated to inaugurations and memorable events on Tuesday.

"They're seeing history in the making," Buckentin said. "That's something I want them to remember -- what they were doing."

Nelson talked with his students about their impressions of the president's address.

Most of the students seemed to think it was a good speech. One appreciated that Obama mentioned the country's problems without naming names -- "he didn't throw anybody under the bus."

There was disagreement between two men over whether Obama was right to state that no one would "outlast" the United States. Nelson said that and some of the other topics in the speech would be discussed and debated during the class, which just started two weeks ago.

Other students liked Obama's comments about the economy and the need for the people in the nation to work together.

Adrianna Bergstrom of Willmar said she thought the speech promoted a sense of unity. Seeing the huge crowds of people "reminds me of the Fourth of July," she said.

Nick Knosalla of Staples had been able to watch the inauguration live on television before coming to the class, which started at noon. "It was just so powerful, to see blacks, whites, everybody all coming together," he said.

Shoulders said he was moved by Obama's comment that he was inaugurated in a city where his father wouldn't have been served in a restaurant less than 60 years ago.

"This president means a lot to our generation," said Ben Dols of Kerkhoven. "I think he's a good pick."

Nelson pointed out that the speech included a number of common themes for inaugural addresses. "It's not unusual to make a call of some kind," for national unity or shared sacrifice, he said.

Inaugurals also often include remarks aimed at the rest of the world, both allies and enemies.

Some students commented that a good speech is only that, and they are waiting to see what Obama and his administration will do.

"Today is for celebration," Nelson reminded them.

Buckentin's third-hour class stayed into their lunch hour to see the end of the inaugural address live.

During the inaugural address, they made tallies on a sheet to keep track of how many times Obama mentioned some issues. Their homework assignment was to become Obama's speechwriters, choosing themes and writing speeches for him.

During the class, Buckentin gave the students a list of major events that have happened in their lifetimes -- the death of Princess Diana, the 9/11 attacks, Hurricane Katrina and the 35W bridge collapse. They talked about what they remembered at those times and where they were.

"All of these events are negative events," she said. "What's happening today is something positive ... so make a note; this is a very big day in history."

Buckentin asked who thought Obama would be able to end the war in Iraq, or help the economy. About half the class raised their hands; others shrugged, seeming unsure of what the answer might be.

After class, several students said they found the inauguration exciting, and they thought good things will happen with Obama in office. One girl said she thought many would think differently about African-American people with Obama as president.

"It's definitely important in history," said Lori McCain, a freshman from Pennock. "He has a good plan for what America needs to become."