It was January 8, 2008 and therefore cold and white, in Hanover. It was the first full week of classes after the winter break at Dartmouth and it also happened to be the day of the New Hampshire Democratic Primary. Pretty much every winter prior, I has been playing basketball but this was the first that I would dedicate to football.
My workouts wouldn’t start immediately, however. I was in a car accident just five days before, during which I broke my back in two places although, it went misdiagnosed for another 14 months.
The football team had early workouts and with the polls opening for the proverbial “kickoff primary” every election cycle , Senator Barack Obama was scheduled to speak at Dartmouth early that morning.
A few teammates expressed plans to skip their class and hear him speak but I couldn’t afford to miss.
I had a modified workout designed to keep stress off my spine followed by taping at least two ice bags to my lower back that I wore around campus but seldom made it past breakfast. In the New England windy winter, having two bags of additional cold and wet strapped to my body wasn’t exactly my favorite.
My workout was on the bike indoors so I finished before my teammates so I showered and headed to the Davis Varsity House for ice. There was a lot more people than usual for 730AM. As I approached the walkway leading up to the Davis House, a man in an all black suit, unnecessary sunglasses given the overcast and an ear piece extended his arm like a mom slamming on her breaks to keep me from going further.
“I’m just going to get ice for my back,” and I gestured to the Davis House. He got clearance from someone else wearing unnecessary glasses and then let me through.
I also happened to be wearing a shirt with Obama’s face on it. I was apart of his campus campaign team and since I couldn’t attend his speech I figured the least I could do is wear his shirt.
I swung open the old and heavy doors to the Davis House and was immediately blinded by a camera’s flash. The photographer was pointing in my direction and I couldn’t have been more in the background of this picture if I tried.
I’m standing in the short corridor to the lobby of the Davis House trying to decide whether the discomfort in my back outweighed the sheer awkwardness of the situation when I realized that it was about to get worse and better at the same time.
I scan the lobby looking for a familiar face to wave me into the training room for ice. Michelle Obama. Joe Biden. Jill Biden.
The looks on their faces must have been a give away because the whole group of people that were posing for the picture only a few paces in front of me, turned around in unison and it was then that I realized that Barack Obama was one of those people.
“I totally just photo bombed Obama,” I thought to myself.
He recognized his face blown up all over my chest and walked over to me.
“Hi, how ya’ doin?” He asked.
“Kyle Battle, from Cincinnati” I extended my hand, very professional, firm and ready for a solid squeeze - but not too much. “I’m doing well. Tough loss for my Buckeyes last night though.”
“I saw the highlights on SportsCenter, “he responded and then we shook hands. I promise I’ve never overthought a handshake so much in my life but I was fully prepared for the professional, by-the-book handshake with a nice jolt at the bottom - not soft enough to transition into the slow and continuous handshake that no one ever knows when to end but also not hard enough to pop a shoulder. Instead, as soon as my hand made contact with his, just before the jolt, he pivoted his hand up around the joint of his thumb, grabbed my thumb and pulled me in for a hug like I was one of the homies.
The whole concept of the White House and the executive branch of government had previously seemed so distant and foreign to me. With 43 white, male presidents to start us off, I had never really felt a connection to any of them; none of them seemed to represent me. That handshake, to me, a poor Black boy from suburban Cincinnati that didn’t even think he deserved to be an Ivy League student at the time, flipped my whole notion of the presidency, and even my own identity, on its head. In a word, that handshake represented hope.
Hope that a person who shook hands like me, or that had to brush their hair like me, or that had to steal some lotion from his lady’s purse in the car to pinch in the webbings of their fingers before leaving the house so as to avoid the “Ashy Obama” headlines - hope that I could look at the White House and see some reflection of myself other than the skin color of those who built it.
With Obama leaving the presidency today, I’m fortunate to have grown from a boy into a man under his administration. My drive and determination to be great is directly correlated to Barack Obama being president. I thought I had big goals before, and then Obama was elected and it was exposed that what I thought was a ceiling was just one of those underwater levels of Fear Factor where you have to find the hole in the glass in order to move up from one level to the next.
I know many will read this and write it off as another Black person praising Obama, which isn’t entirely false. But I write this as an Ivy League graduate, published author, activist and entrepreneur and I can definitively say that I would not have achieved those titles by the age of 28 if Obama hadn’t been sworn in when I was 20. From one American pursuing the American dream to another, thank you for your service to this country Uncle Barry.