(Cheryl Weiss, Oct. 23, 2017)
West Bloomfield, MI – “Being at lunch was the coolest experience ever!” said Bryce Hairston, an eighth grade student at Orchard Lake Middle School in West Bloomfield, where First Lady Melania Trump and U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made a surprise visit today to kick off the “Week of Inclusion”, which is part of National Bullying Prevention Month.
As Trump and DeVos entered the cafeteria, seventh and eighth grade students cheered and took out their phones for selfiies. Both Trump and DeVos seemed happy to pose for photos as they made their way to the front of the room. DeVos spoke about the need to “make sure that every student feels included” when they are in school, and then she introduced the First Lady.
“I encourage you to find a new friend and eat lunch with a new friend,’ Trump said to the students. She suggested they ask peers what they like and ask about their hobbies to get to know each other, “so that nobody feels sad, stressed, and everybody feels included.”
Trump went on to encourage students to use kindness and compassion with each other. She noted when she arrived that many tables had just girls and just boys. “Get together, become friends,” she told them.
Trump’s message was a part of “No One Eats Alone,” an idea that promotes kindness and ensures that all students have a friend to spend time with during lunch; that no student feels alone in the lunchroom.
In spite of the famous guest, it was still lunchtime, and students finished their lunches excitedly with their friends as they waited for their turn to interact with the First Lady and the Secretary of Education. “I was in awe,” Hairston shared. They came to his table, and he wanted to get a selfie, but he felt it was too crowded. He said that Trump and DeVos commented on being friends with each other, inclusion, and making new friends.
“I thought no way, it can’t be real,” Hairston said of first hearing about the potential for a First Lady visit. But it was, and it was memorable. “People will never forget the day the President’s wife came to our school,” he said.
Meanwhile, in Susie Aisner’s 6th grade Viking Huddle class, they waited for Trump and DeVos to visit their classroom. “This is something you’re not going to forget. You know you’re in a safe, comfortable place because we’re a Viking family,” Aisner told the students as they waited.
She led the students in a lesson on inclusion and kindness. Each table of up to four students received a bag of words. They were asked to work together to separate the words into categories of either inclusion or exclusion. During this activity, Trump and DeVos joined them, visiting each table and encouraging students to share their thoughts. Working hard, showing kindness, and including everyone were the messages Trump and DeVos shared with students as they worked.
At the end of the activity, students worked on a gift for their visitors. On a paper star, students wrote about to what it feels like when you sit next to someone new in the cafeteria. On a paper hand, they wrote how it feels when they know they do not have to eat alone.
Principal Morrison Borders reflected, “Today was great! Our kids had a great opportunity; how many kids can say they sat down with the First Lady?”
Borders had an opportunity to talk to Trump and DeVos about the programs they run at Orchard Lake Middle School, and he said they had nothing but good things to say. The lesson taught in Aisner’s class was taught in all sixth grade Viking Huddle classes today; it was not designed for today’s visit. According to Borders, the school district does a lot of work around social and emotional learning, and focusing on helping kids feel comfortable in the classroom. The students selected to meet with Trump and DeVos today were based on the schedule; when he found out the times they would be at the school, it fit into the seventh and eighth grade lunch, and then sixth grade Viking Huddle. Aisner’s class was chosen because her classroom is closest to the cafeteria.
The visit prompted protestors to gather across the street, concerned with the mixed messages being sent by the Trump administration. In 2015 a transgender student from West Bloomfield high school died of suicide, a pain that is still fresh in the West Bloomfield community. DeVos has removed policies that were put in place by the Obama administration to protect LGBT youth in schools. Just days ago she reduced requirements that supported special education students.
Others noted the irony of an anti-bullying message by the wife of a President who regularly mocks those he disagrees with.
Trump’s Communications Director Stephanie Grisham told CNN that “Mrs. Trump is independent and acts independently from her husband. She does what she feels is right, and knows that she has a real opportunity through her role as first lady to have a positive impact on the lives of children. Her only focus is to effect change within our next generation,” when asked about her position on bullying compared to her husband’s behavior.
Policies and politics aside, the visit will be a memorable one for students who saw not only the officials, but also the entourage of Secret Service and members of the media
“It went smoother than I would possibly have imagined it would. Everyone was prepped on what to do and what not to do,” Principal Borders said. “The kids loved it.”