A president who inspired big dreams, and big smiles, in a young generation

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President Barack Obama watches as Joey Hudy, 14, shoots a marshmallow cannon at the White House science fair in Washington on February 7, 2012. Obama’s ease with children and his ability to inspire them has been a hallmark of his presidency. Hudy has gone on to speak publicly across the world at events for young inventors, and at 16 was hired as an intern at Intel.

Michelle Yemba, who is 6 years old, often tells strangers about the time two years ago that she met the president of the United States.

The conversation started during a surprise visit by President Barack Obama to her Head Start program in Lawrence, Kansas. Obama told Michelle that he knew someone else with the same name—one of his favorite people, he said, coyly referring to his wife.

President Barack Obama watches as Joey Hudy, 14, shoots a marshmallow cannon at the White House science fair in Washington on February 7, 2012. Obama’s ease with children and his ability to inspire them has been a hallmark of his presidency. Hudy has gone on to speak publicly across the world at events for young inventors, and at 16 was hired as an intern at Intel.
President Barack Obama watches as Joey Hudy, 14, shoots a marshmallow cannon at the White House science fair in Washington on February 7, 2012. Obama’s ease with children and his ability to inspire them has been a hallmark of his presidency. Hudy has gone on to speak publicly across the world at events for young inventors, and at 16 was hired as an intern at Intel.

“He has just a natural flow with the kids,” Clara Cox, director of the Head Start program, said, recounting the visit.

One of Obama’s lasting legacies may be the symbolic impact on the generation for whom “president of the United States” has always referred to a black man. Tapping into that at events throughout his two terms, he often seemed to assume the role of national dad—embracing the children of strangers as if they were his own.

Photos of these interactions, in which the president connected with children through poignant head pats and playful poses, have been shared widely online. As his administration ends, we look back at some of the young people who met him and how the encounters shaped their lives.

Jedi Scott

At 10 months old, Jedi Scott became known in his neighborhood in Brooklyn as “the Obama baby”. He had been scooped up by the president-elect the day before the 2009 inauguration at a community service event in Washington. “Michelle, I think we just decided we’re going to take Jedi home,” Obama said, as the boy’s parents, Jason Scott and Kippy Joseph, looked on.

President Barack Obama laughs at Rosalia Kildee’s popemobile costume at a Halloween Party, at the White House in Washington on October 30, 2015. Obama’s way with children was one of the hallmarks of his presidency. Brian Kildee, (right) recalled the Obamas’ ease in the moment. “They were just two people in their sneakers, hanging out on their front porch and handing out candy to little kids,” he said.
President Barack Obama laughs at Rosalia Kildee’s popemobile costume at a Halloween Party, at the White House in Washington on October 30, 2015. Obama’s way with children was one of the hallmarks of his presidency. Brian Kildee, (right) recalled the Obamas’ ease in the moment. “They were just two people in their sneakers, hanging out on their front porch and handing out candy to little kids,” he said.

Cameras flashed. The next day, “our phones just exploded,” Scott said. Their son was on the front page of The New York Times, smiling at Barack Obama. “I think he realized something special was happening,” Scott said.

Today, Jedi is 8. “We actually watched the farewell speech with him and our daughter, Kaia,” Joseph said. “Jedi understands the history and the importance of it —that he was the first African-American president and what that meant to so many people.”

‘Waiting for superman’ Students

Not long after the release of the education documentary Waiting for Superman in 2010, Obama invited students featured in the film, their families and their teachers to the White House.

“I never thought I would ever get to meet someone in such a high position as him,” said Nakia Whitfield, whose daughter Bianca attended. “As her mother, I feel honored knowing that my child had a one-in-a-million chance to meet with the first African-American president of the United States of America.”

She added: “This is a moment that will follow her for the rest of her life.”

Emily Jones is now a college senior who wants to become a teacher: “His actions and interests in us show his legacy for the current and next generation of educators. And I will always be grateful for his commitment of advocacy to public education.”

Leland Shelton

Leland Shelton said he felt some “cognitive dissonance” when Obama held him up as an example for young black men in a May 2013 speech at his graduation from Morehouse College in Atlanta. Shelton, who was raised with his siblings by their grandmother because their parents were addicted to drugs, was graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Morehouse—a historically black college—and went on to graduate from Harvard Law School.

The mixed feelings came as the president congratulated Shelton but also used his story to tell black men not to make excuses for their personal failings. In doing so, Obama invoked the kind of respectability politics that has often driven a wedge between him and younger generations of black men.

Shelton, 25, said he appreciated the shout-out but wished it had come with an acknowledgment of the impacts of systemic racism. “I think it was a good move, just to show that beating the odds is not impossible,” Shelton said. “But you also want to address the fact that those odds exist.”

Waving students from the Daughter of Zion Junior Academy caught Obama’s eye as his motorcade drove past their school on the way to a campaign event in Delray, Florida, in October 2012, according to Willa Dean Fulmore, the school’s secretary.

Not long after, Secret Service agents arrived at the academy and asked administrators to bring the students, most of whom come from low-income homes, to a nearby civic center for an impromptu meeting. Obama spoke for a few minutes about the importance of studying, especially math, she said, calling the short meeting “the greatest memory of my life.”

Patricia McCoy, who became principal in 2014, said photos of the president’s visit, which hang around the school, inspired her to keep working harder in a job that could be grueling and thankless. “I have days when I think, ‘God, I can’t do this anymore,’” she said, adding of the visit, “I felt like it was a miracle to jump-start me back up.”

Rosalia Kildee

Rosalia Kildee rode on the White House driveway in her popemobile during a Halloween celebration in 2015, while her father, Brian Kildee, acted as her security detail. Her mother, Laura Baptiste, was taking photographs.

“As we approached, President Obama bent down, smiled and started to laugh. Rosalia’s miter cocked back, and the two of them just sort of communed,” Baptiste said, referring to her headgear. “For the moments that we were there with the Obamas, it didn’t seem like we were with the president and first lady of the United States. They were just two people in their sneakers, hanging out on their front porch and handing out candy to little kids.”

Joey Hudy

Shooting the contents of a mechanical pencil across a classroom out of a Gatorade bottle would land most students in detention. But Joey Hudy’s experiment inspired a marshmallow cannon that he eventually fired at a White House science fair in 2012.

Joey was shy and said he had no friends, according to a profile published by Arizona State University, before attending an inventors event that preceded his White House visit. He has gone on to speak publicly across the world at events for young inventors, sit in the first lady’s box at the State of the Union address in 2014 and get hired at 16 as an intern at Intel. He enrolled at Arizona State University but took a job in China, according to his blog.

College Heights Early Childhood Learning Center students

Shortly after his second term began, Obama visited Lauren Parks’s prekindergarten class at the College Heights Early Childhood Learning Center in Decatur, Georgia.

“To witness President Obama persevere in placing such high importance on children and education affirms my work as a teacher,” Parks said this week. “The few minutes I had to speak with him in the hallway before inviting him into my classroom made such an impact on me. I saw him express genuine excitement to meet my diverse, effervescent, curious, wonderful students. My students and I helped the president show to others why we matter.”

Image Credits: Stephen Crowley/The New York Times, Zach Gibson/The New York Times