How a Natural Disaster Gained Me an Invitation to the White House

At the very top of my Bucket List was one thing:

‘Visit New York.’

I had spent my teenage years watching American programmes like Sex and the City and Friends, and had started to develop a little obsession with going there, to the point where I had books and posters all over the house.

After I qualified as a teacher I started working at a secondary school. I had only been there for about a year when I heard that the history department were planning an American History and Politics trip to New York, Philadelphia and Washington, and after several months of nagging and annoying the trip leader he eventually agreed to let me join.

And so it was I found myself stood outside a hostel around the corner from Madison Square Gardens at 3.00am during the Easter holidays of 2010, accompanied by seven other members of staff and 56 children, all of whom were tired and clutching suitcases that were stuffed with far too many items of clothing for a week – long trip.

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Times Square at night

The itinerary had been planned right down the the minute with the plan to see and do as much as possible in the three days that we had scheduled. We kept to it – we went up the Empire State Building and the ‘Top of the Rock,’ visited Times Square (several times), took the Staten Island Ferry and saw the Statue of Liberty, played volleyball on Coney Island, shopped at Macy’s, the Apple Store and Bloomingdales, and we walked. And walked. And walked some more. We walked through Central Park, paid our respects to John Lennon at Strawberry Fields, we walked around Wall Street and through to Ground Zero, where the new tower had just started construction, we walked around Washington Square and listened to the amazing street performers. I saw works of art that I had previously studied at the MOMA and The Met. In our bright red waterproofs with the school logo printed in the front we were the ultimate tourists – my feet were swollen and blistered but it was absolutely worth it.

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A very happy doorman at the Empire State Building

On the fourth day we travelled by coach to the National Constitution Centre in Philadelphia, stopping along the way to run the the ‘Rocky’ steps. Unfortunately, I was quite a heavy smoker at the time and so my running consisted of ‘run halfway, stop to avoid passing out and then run the rest.’ We then travelled to Washington, where we were staying at a hotel in the centre of the city.

After spending half a week in a bunk bed in a hostel I was delighted that my room not only had a double bed, but a bath. It was dark by the time that we had checked in, eaten and unpacked, and so we went for a walk to see the White House and the Washington Monument. We didn’t get back until late and so it was decided that the next day would be a lazier start to the morning. I woke up early and while everybody else was getting ready I went in search of some cigarettes, and managed to buy some in a waffle store opposite Ford’s Theatre.

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Washington Monument

We spent the next few days following the itinerary as scheduled – we visited the Smithsonian museums, sat in the gallery during a congressional debate (during which our trip leader was told off for falling asleep) and the older students were delighted to see some of the politicians that they had been studying as part of their course. We visited the ‘Newseum’ where I says the antenae from the Twin Towers, sections of the Berlin Wall, John Dillinger’s death mask and some of Elvis Presley’s costumes. We played rounders on the grass, during which lots of Americans stopped to tell us that we were playing ‘baseball’ wrong. At night we visited the memorials. One of the greatest experiences of my life was sitting on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, overlooking the Washington Mall – it was dark, clear and warm and I found it almost impossible to take in the sheer significance of where I was.

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The Lincoln Memorial at night

On our final day, when we were eating breakfast, our trip leader received a phone call. The Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajokull had erupted, causing all planes to be grounded, including the one that was supposed to fly us back to England. We weren’t going anywhere. In fact, the travel insurance company couldn’t tell us when we would be able to leave, and had paid for us to stay for another week in the hotel.

Awesome.

After spending the previous week following a strict itinerary, we decided to relax a little. We visited things that we could have only dreamed of before – the Holocaust Museum (which I had to go to the toilets to stop myself from crying in front of the students), we went to Alexandria and Georgetown, and we visited Arlington Cemetery. It was the best possible situation – the travel company paid for our food and accommodation and the hotel allowed parents to wire over more money to students, even though they didn’t need it.

One morning I received a phonecall in my room at the hotel:

Him: Hi there, could I speak to Mr … (Our trip leader)

Me: I’m sorry, you have the wrong room, but can I pass on a message?

Him: my name is B, I am calling from The White House.

I almost dropped the phone. We had tried to get into a tour previously but were disappointed to discover that this needed to be booked several months in advance.

Me: erm… Good morning!

Him: We saw your story in the Washington Post and we would like to invite you and your group for a tour of the White House…

It turns out, the Washington Post had heard about our situation and had written a short article about us. The next day we were lined up outside the White House entrance with our passports, excitedly waiting to go in. Some of the students were convinced that we would see Obama, and were sorely disappointed when we saw his helicopter taking off.

And there I was, walking around the lower floor of the White House, staring at portraits of Presidents gone by that I had only seen previously on the television or in books. What an experience.

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Outside the White House

We discovered later that the ash cloud had cleared and we would be on a flight in two days time. Not before, however, we attended the ‘Earth Concert’ on the Washington Mall, during which we watched Jimmy Cliff, John Legend and Sting perform.

Our return to the UK was just as eventful. Only one coach showed up, leaving a small amount of the group behind to wait several hours for another coach, and on our return to school we were faced with local TV crews who did news reports on our American adventure.

Oh, and the final thing we were told upon our return after only nine hours sleep in two days and a 5000 mile journey? We had an OFSTED inspection the next day…

What about you guys? Have you ever been stranded anywhere?

You can also find me on Twitter and Tumblr @suzie81blog

37 thoughts on “How a Natural Disaster Gained Me an Invitation to the White House

  1. OK!!! for a start you have annoyed me, how dare you use the words ‘Sex in the City’ and ‘Teenager’ in the same sentence, you have made me feel REALLY old now and on a Sunday morning as well!
    Secondly you have been not only to New York but to the White House and you have the audacity to tell me about the visit to the White House, also why does the word ‘audacity’ start with an ‘A’ when it should start with an ‘O’?
    Why did you manage to take all those teenager and not loose any of them, or find one drunk or earning money on the corner of Time Square!!!

    This adventure of your has really upset my Sunday…………………..I am going back to bed……HUFF HUFF HUFF HUFF!!!!!!!!

    *mumbles…bloody teachers don’t do any work, get all those holidays, sits drinking coffee and eating cake in the staff room when they should be on the playground supervising the thugs and separating teenagers kissing and doing nasties behind the bike shed and buggering off to New York for a f**king junket………..more inaudible rants………..!!!!

      • Almost losing is just not good enough, you know when you have been on a good school trip when the bus is an hour late leaving because 2 to 4 kids are missing, some are moaning that their sandwiches have tuna and cucumber in them and the bread has gone soggy, another have spilt tomato soup on their lap and it looks like they have wet them and they sitting next to the girl with white trousers now it looked like she has started her periods and refuses to get off the bus, the two children who have had the travel sickness pills have puked up in the puke bucket because they got in early to the visitors centre and bought erasers and bars of chocolate bars with the name of the place you are visiting and now refusing to sit with the puke bucket because it smells and makes them feel sick, they now have Tesco carrier bags and your so tempted to place them snugly on their heads.
        Finally you have the most popular girls sitting at the back who have drank that many cans of coke that they are first to get off when the bus stops as they are that desperate to pee and they are making sure that everyone on the bus and the bus in front know it.

        Oh the school trip I hated them, so why the hell did I always say I will make up the adult to kids ratio???? ……………Glutton for punishment I expect!!
        πŸ™‚

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  3. Sounds like an amazing trip – pretty lucky the way things panned out an how exciting to be personally invited to the White House! Hope the ofsted went okay! My family ended up stranded in the Seychelles! So lucky that when we took off from Mauritius to come home there was a problem with the plane – no danger but it meant we landed in the Seychelles for another couple of nights in paradise!

  4. Hmmm…I was in Washington D.C. in the Spring of 2010. It’s possible our paths actually crossed. Do you remember if you saw a group of people zipping around on Segways?

  5. I am glad you got to spend that exciting time exploring the States, Suzie. Your story shows all how much it still means to you. I think it is grand when the world gets smaller like it do for you and your group.

  6. That sounds like an eventful trip! I remember going with my middle school class to New York and D.C. I’m going to New York again in a few weeks and I can’t wait! There are so many cool things to see, and I’m planning on going to Central Park while I’m there.

    I went to San Antonio, Texas when I was in high school, and my group’s flight was canceled in Chicago when we were coming back. So we had to stay in Chicago for the night before we went home the next day. It was frustrating to wait around in the airport, but you never know what the expect when you travel.

  7. This was nice to know about your being included and visiting our country. I love the way you start with television and your interest in ‘us’ due to the shows! I am like that with Downton Abbey and “Sherlock” the newer one, with the computer minded detective! I am a big fan of England and hope someday to see it. I hope I will have smiling doormen and a great experience. But you give everything your ‘all,” I feel, like I do, so I will have a fantastic time over on your side of the pond!
    Oh, I was stranded in the Dallas, Texas airport (if that is the one with the tram that rides around the circumference… it may be Houston!) Hugs, Robin

  8. Love your story! What a great opportunity!! I live on Long Island, and NYC is such a great place. Truly no place like it! Your trip sounds like an adventure! You got to experience a lot of historic U.S.! Cool πŸ™‚

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  10. I love this post! Thanks so much for sharing.

    My “stranded” stories include a week spent sitting on the floor of the Luxembourg Airport along with an ever-growing group of American students, all of us having missed our flight due to a train strike, and thus relegated to waiting for standby seats during the height of the summer tourist season. As the days went on, our numbers grew. We’d pool our money and send someone into town for bread, cheese, and wine, and at nights we’d head back to town for more drinking and cheap partying. By the end of the week the group was so large and frankly, increasingly disreputable, that the airport chartered a flight to take us back to the States. For some reason, the only thing to drink onboard was champagne. Best flight ever!

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  14. What an adventure. I don’t remember being stranded anywhere aside from when I had a fall at home and my husband was working 2 hours away. I think he’s been stranded in Sydney with bushfires blocking the way home.
    Lately, my husband would say I’ve been stranded at home writing, working on my A-Z posts. The kids are on holidays and he noted the car hadn’t moved for a few days. We’re actually starting to run out of food but man can not live on bread alone!
    xx Rowena

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