02/20/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

High School Dismisses Class to Watch Inauguration

At San Mateo High School in California's San Francisco Bay Area, Principal Yvonne Shiu gave teachers and students the option to call off class this morning to go to their Performing Arts Center instead, and watch CNN's live coverage of Barack Obama's inauguration.

Hardly any teachers refused the invitation, and even some who had intended on continuing with their lesson plans gave in to their pleading students who wanted to watch this historic moment. In the 1600-seat theater that usually houses the high school's award-winning drama productions, only a handful of empty seats remained as teachers stood in the aisles or sat on steps.

"It's an educational moment," said Shiu. "For many of our students, it's the first or only inauguration experience." A seating chart was mapped out for classes to sit in designated areas. Teachers who signed up first were able to reserve better viewing seats.


This protocol of seat assignments applies to school pep rallies and assemblies as well, but in comparison with those events, today's student body audience seemed unusually quiet. Normally the space resounds with cheering and yelling, a tradition of spirit well known throughout the district, especially when it comes to the school's world record canned food drive. The sense of service and civic participation continued today, as San Mateo was one of the only schools in the area allowing their students to leave class and watch the inauguration.

With the occasional loud cheer for people like Aretha Franklin, Yo-Yo Ma and Sen. Diane Feinstein, students applauded respectfully and even stood for both Vice President Joe Biden's and President Barack Obama's oaths. In this photo, students stand for Biden's swearing-in. The CNN broadcast showed the speaker stating, "please rise," to which one student in the back stood up. At first the others in the theater laughed at the one student, but within a few seconds, all thousand-odd attendees were on their feet, including one on crutches.


Senior Kate Stern, who volunteered for Congresswoman Jackie Speier's campaign last year, watched with her classmates who would normally be in English class just then. "It's our duty to be a part of our country's history," Stern said. Prior to the oath of office, she and her friends talked about what Obama's "monumental quote" might be. She referred to Kennedy's "ask not what your country can do for you," and Franklin Roosevelt's "only thing we have to fear is fear itself."

While some students in the audience were clearly just enjoying what felt like a break from studying, others were there to observe the spectacle and remember this moment.

"There's a lot of hype around school, with people screaming when [Obama] comes out," senior Adam Courtin said of his schoolmates. "I was thinking this morning about those documentaries that you see of the '60s and those powerful events. I think this will be one of the defining moments that we'll see in future documentaries."