When I sat down with 18-year-old seniors Vontate Stewart and James Adams at Hyde Park Academy on the day before their meeting with President Barack Obama, they were excited about the visit, but rather reserved.
Sure, they felt fortunate that as members of Becoming a Man — Sports Edition (BAM) they would be two of only 16 teenagers chosen to spend time with the president during his post-State of the Union stopover in Chicago to talk about gun violence.
But they were laid back about it. Totally cool.
That was on Thursday.
On Friday, after a roughly hourlong session during which the president shared stories about his own issues growing up, cool gave way to gushing.
"It was the most overwhelming and amazing experience of my life," said Stewart, who lives in the Grand Boulevard neighborhood and joined BAM last fall.
"He came in and sat down and took off his jacket," said Adams, who lives in Englewood and also joined the group last fall. "I was like, 'He's getting comfortable just to listen to us.'"
Said Corey Stevens, 17, a senior whom I met Friday: "When he walked in, he looked like every photograph my mother has of him in our living room. It felt like a dream."
Obama told the young men that he struggled as a teen but was in an environment that was a bit more forgiving.
"So when I screwed up, the consequences weren't as high as when kids on the South Side screw up," Obama later said during his speech. "So I had more of a safety net. But these guys are no different than me, and we had that conversation about what does it take to change."
In recent months, as the call for Obama to come to Chicago to address the gun violence grew louder, a lot of people (and I'll include myself) wondered whether a visit by the president could make a difference. But maybe we were too focused on the impact he'd have on the knuckleheads who are terrorizing neighborhoods.
Maybe we weren't thinking enough about these young men — who are college-bound and trying to improve their lives.
"I told President Obama that I pray every day and hope that I get to school safely and get back home safely," Stewart told me.
Even the school, which is my alma mater, speaks to their reality. To enter, they have to go through a set of metal detectors and push their book bags under scanners, just like at the airport. It wasn't like that when I was at Hyde Park in the early 1980s.
I believe one reason Obama's visit meant so much is that at the most fundamental level, people want to be heard and understood. Young people growing up in tough neighborhoods also want to be seen as much more than statistics or stereotypes.
BAM aims to help adolescent boys in Chicago public schools navigate the path to manhood. A therapeutic intervention program, it's designed to help young men develop positive character traits, respond to difficult situations in constructive ways and make better choices.
Through this program, these young men are introduced to impressive people who say inspiring things.
But on Friday, it wasn't just the message, but the messenger.
"When you can have an informal and candid conversation with the president of the United States and he tells you that he wishes he had grown up with his father, that makes a difference," said Marshaun Bacon, a BAM counselor.
I believe that.
While we all know that inspiration can be a terrific start, these young people need something far more concrete. I talked to Adams and Stewart about this the day before Obama's visit as we sat in the school's broadcast technology studio with about seven of their peers.
I asked them: What can Obama do about gun violence in Chicago?
Adams said he believed communities needed more safe places for young people to hang out during those critical after-school hours, between 4 and 8 p.m.
"But there should be more places with no strings attached," said Adams. "A lot of places now, you have to pay some type of fee or they want you to attend a movie night or you have to put in study time. Sometimes you just want to play basketball."
Stewart said that he doesn't believe it's possible to decrease the number of guns on the streets.
"If we can't get the guns off the streets, there are types of strategies that can change the way people handle conflicts," he said. "We need to work on those."
Who knows how Obama's visit will affect these young men in the long run. But I would guess that after talking face to face with the president — who Adams said was "much taller than I expected" — it's an experience they probably won't ever forget.Copyright © 2015, CT Now