Sitting in teacher Rachel Cohen’s Colchester High School classroom last week, students said their trip to President Donald Trump’s inauguration felt like a lifetime ago.
In actuality, they’d returned from the whirlwind Washington adventure less than two weeks prior.
The trip kicked off with a tour of the city’s most popular attractions, from the historic Ford’s Theatre to the newly unveiled National Museum of African American History and Culture. At the Washington Monument, students said nearly everyone was wearing or selling Trump merchandise – a preview of the day to come.
It was as far back as last year that the students learned they were selected to participate in a class called Election 2016 and accompanying trip to D.C. in January – long before anyone knew who would become the nation’s 45th president.
A course centered on politics had the potential to turn personal, Cohen said, but by design was an objective study of the currently unfolding election and of prior political face-offs.
“There’s that saying that politics isn’t something you talk about at the dinner table, but we did and it didn’t end up in fights or disagreements,” CHS student Shannon French said of the class. “It gave us new perspectives, and in the end, I think it was beneficial.”
The crew prepped for its final excursion with extensive research, including personal projects, and a fundraiser. The latter was held outside the high school turned polling site on Election Day and helped offset the $1,800 price tag each student was responsible for collecting.
They left their hotel at 5:30 a.m. on January 20, ready to witness history. Cohen collected tickets from Vermont Rep. Peter Welch’s office the day before, and the group settled in to view the proceedings from just behind the reflecting pool.
Though lines and wait times didn’t plague the group, students said the strong security presence was a little unsettling at times. Law enforcement personnel were up on roofs of nearby buildings, and all attendees had to keep their pockets empty, the students said.
Cohen forgot she’d stuffed dozens of miniature candy bars into her jacket to share with the students throughout the day and had to remove them one by one at the security checkpoints, she recalled with a laugh.
Once in their assigned corral, the kids noted what they called “roominess” at the venue. That perception was called into question later, when a fiery debate about crowd size erupted between members of the media and the Trump administration.
Having an up close view was beneficial when trying to asses the true attendance numbers, student Dorcas Lohese said.
“According to what I saw, we had space. I expected it to be more crowded where we were,” Lohese said. “We had space.”
“We were less susceptible to media bias in that respect because we were there. We saw what we saw,” Natalie Garen, another student, added. “I could form my own takeaways from what I saw firsthand rather than what I saw being reported.”
Twenty-four hours later, the students found themselves on the National Mall again, this time surrounded by a very different crowd. Women’s March protestors, many sporting the now-signature pink pussyhats, had flocked to the site by the hundreds of thousands.
The horde was so dense, Cohen said the students had to abandon plans to visit the National Archives that afternoon. Still, she chalked the outing up to a learning experience.
“We’d seen what was beneficial to see, but we were not there to participate,” Cohen said. “We wanted to maintain objectivity.”
Several students said witnessing both the inauguration and protest as non-participatory members granted them an uninhibited look at folks along the entire political spectrum.
“In Trump’s inaugural address, he emphasized the point of giving power back to the people,” French said. “Then, the next day we saw this display of a movement and power within the people.”
Again, student Sawyer Loftus said the group bore witness to an event that would later show up on newsstands across the world.
“Even the day afterwards looking at my Facebook feed [I saw] very conflicting reports on the Women’s March,” Loftus said. “[I was] able to say, ‘That didn’t necessarily happen’ or ‘I didn’t see that’ or ‘I didn’t feel that way.’”
The night after the inauguration, the students gathered to process all they’d seen. Cohen said they analyzed speaking techniques, crowd reactions and the overarching themes that guided the day.
For many, it was the best part of the trip. Loftus said it drove home the ideals they’d spent so much time discussing in the Colchester classroom.
“I don’t think we all agreed every time, and especially during that conversation,” Loftus acknowledged. “If that can happen on a larger level across the country, it would hopefully subside some of the divisiveness that exists right now. It gives me hope.”