WASHINGTON – It’s hard not to be suspicious when you get a call from the White House, asking if you’re free the next night to sit with the first lady while the president delivers the State of the Union address.
“Monday night, around 8:30, there were two messages on my machine,” said Sarah Sandoval, 23. “One was from the White House. I was skeptical, but I called back, not really knowing what it was about.”
Lucky for the Baltimore middle school teacher, her curiosity prevailed. Twenty-four hours later she was sitting in the Capitol with Laura Bush, representing the Teach for America program while the president gave his speech to both houses of Congress.
Mrs. Bush supports Teach For America, which hires college graduates to teach in low-income communities. After the White House called Teach for America on Monday looking for a representative, the word went out to its troops in Washington and Baltimore “to nominate a corps member who represented diversity, leadership and being a great teacher,” said program spokeswoman Amy Palladino.
The Baltimore office called back immediately to nominate Sandoval, a 2000 Stanford University graduate who is completing her second year in Teach For America as a sixth- and seventh-grade social studies teacher at Robert Poole Middle School in Baltimore.
Once she realized the invitation wasn’t a prank, Sandoval said, “I was very excited, honored to be invited.”
But with less than a day’s notice, she was also running short on time.
School was closed Tuesday so teachers could attend professional development programs, but Sandoval had to skip out of an afternoon session to go shopping — she still had nothing to wear that night.
“You know, she didn’t tell us anything until late that day,” said Robert Poole Middle School Principal Doris Shaw. “I guess different people have different styles. If it were me, the whole world would have known.”
The first lady’s staff met Sandoval that evening at the White House gates and led her inside to a reception, where she mingled with some of the Bushes’ guests, but not the with president or first lady. About 45 minutes later, a motorcade had rushed her straight to the Capitol where she sat two rows behind Mrs. Bush — whom she still had not met.
Sandoval said the president “did a good job of laying out a lot of important issues — particularly about terrorism,” and was particularly impressed by his announcement of the new Freedom Corps community service program.
After the president’s speech, another brief reception followed where Sandoval finally met Mrs. Bush.
“We exchanged a few nice words; it wasn’t a long, in-depth conversation,” she said. Before leaving, she shook hands and took pictures with the president.
“I was a little nervous at first, but it was such an honor,” she said.
Back in Baltimore, some of Sandoval’s students were surprised to catch a glimpse of their teacher on television — she had not had the chance to tell them about it in advance.
“They were all excited,” she said. “They wanted to know how many rooms I’d seen in the White House.”
A champion of the Teach For America Program, Sandoval said she was glad for the chance to represent it and “would recommend it to anyone interested in education.” She hopes to continue teaching at Robert Poole for another year, even after her two-year commitment is up.
“She’s not board-certified, but I’d stack her up against any certified teacher,” said Shaw. “She’s very devoted, always looking for new and different ways to get involved.”