Photos courtesy of Glendale Middle School Vice Principal, Greg Hogan
First lady Dr. Jill Biden came to Salt Lake City on May 5 to visit Glendale Middle School and a COVID-19 vaccination clinic in Jordan Park as part of a nationwide tour focusing on education in areas most affected by the pandemic. Glendale students, parents, and school faculty alike spoke about the once-in-a-lifetime experience of meeting a government dignitary in their neighborhood.
The news that Biden was coming to a middle school on the west side of the city was met with disbelief. For students, it was hard to imagine their school being picked as a stop for a government official.
“Our school isn’t that popular. It’s just like any regular school,” said seventh grader Diana Hernandez-Hernandez.
Other students recognized the perception people outside of their neighborhood have of their school and of the area itself. “Normally, people look at our school and say it’s a bad school,” said Jasmine Vasquez, who is also in the seventh grade. Even some parents had a difficult time processing the news of Biden’s visit to their kids’ school.
Losaline Kaufusi’s son Ilai attends Glendale Middle School. He was photographed by the Salt Lake Tribune placing a lei on Biden’s shoulders. When Kaufusi heard that her son had to be tested for COVID-19 because the first lady was coming to his school, she could hardly process the news.
“I didn’t believe him,” said Kaufusi, “I was like, ‘the first lady of what?’ and [Ilai] was kind of like, ‘the first lady, like the president.’”
But despite parents’ and students’ incredulity, the wife of the President of the United States was coming to their school and preparations needed to be made.
Ukulele club members Lupe Hansen and Joshua Garcia, along with Vasquez and Hernandez-Hernandez, got together virtually at different times to practice for Biden’s visit. As for Ilai, once he was tested for COVID-19 and cleared, Kaufusi arranged the proper Tongan attire for him to wear: a ta’ovala formal mat, kafa, a traditional rope tied around the waist, and tupenu (or lava-lava).
“All worn together shows that you are welcoming those you meet with humility, love, and respect,” said Saineha Hiehiapo, a digital literacy teacher at Glendale Middle School who is also Ilai’s aunt.
Meanwhile, Dane Hess, a teacher who was selected to be on Biden’s escorting detail during her stop at the school, was also preparing for her arrival. When he first heard she would be coming, he was “really excited.”
“I felt it'd be a great honor.” Because he was to spend time around Biden, his screening was more exhaustive to the point where it became overwhelming.
“White House staff are asking me a bunch of questions, Secret Service, background checks,” he said, “They want to rearrange my classroom, interview students, COVID testing. I was like, okay, this is not just a regular visit.”
Once Biden arrived, Hess delighted in conversation with her while presenting both the school’s and student’s progress. He recalls the first lady being personable and “down to earth.”
“Once she came in the classroom,” he said, “she felt like another teacher in the room and that's how I introduced her.”
Given the events of the past year with lockdowns, remote learning, and the economic downturn as a result of the pandemic, Biden’s visit to the neighborhood and to the school had an importance that most students were unaware of. Parents and teachers recognized the impact of the first lady’s visit even if students did not fully appreciate the magnitude of the situation.
“It changes the narrative of the way that people perceive us,” said Hiehiapo, acknowledging the immigrant and working class roots of the area.
“For her to be like ‘this is where I'm going to come to,’ I felt like it raised people's perception of the value of the West Side,” she said.
Hess said Biden’s visit highlighted the multicultural aspect of the school and of the neighborhood. “I think hopefully she and her staff walked away with all of the great work that people are doing in our community,” he said, “I'm hoping that's something that shines through for them.”