WASHINGTON — As if Saturday wasn’t remarkable enough — getting to ride in a rail car on a historic whistle-stop tour through grand old cities and chatting with political celebrities and journalists from around the world — Rosa Mendoza fell numb when she heard her name called out in a speech before thousands of people.
That was when President-elect Barack Obama, in an address to a cheering crowd in Baltimore, gave her a surprise shout-out, saying for posterity that the Las Vegas teacher is someone who is making America a better place.
“I felt like the clouds opened up and angels just poured bliss over me,” said Mendoza, who was standing a few feet away, just offstage. “Electricity went through me. That was awesome.”
Here is part of what the inauguration-bound Obama said in pledging to deliver the change he has promised:
“When our children are graduating from newer, better schools that prepare them to be good citizens and sought-after workers, I will be thinking of middle school teachers like Rosa Mendoza, who is giving her students the chance to fulfill their God-given potential.”
“As long as that (speech) is going to exist, my grandchildren and great-grandchildren will be able to tell that to the world,” said Mendoza, who teaches English at Innovations International Charter School.
Mendoza was among 41 “everyday Americans” who were selected to take part in the daylong rail tour from Philadelphia to Washington, the same route Abraham Lincoln took to his inaugural in 1861. The event kicked off four days of celebration leading to Obama’s swearing-in on Tuesday as the nation’s 44th president.
For Mendoza, 43, it was her first time on a train, and her first time to the East Coast. The teeth in the lifelong Las Vegan were still chattering from the subfreezing temperatures when she checked into her hotel on Saturday evening.
“It was surreal,” said Mendoza, who was accompanied by her daughter Bianca, 24, a teacher at Lake Elementary School. “We were 41 of the luckiest normal people in the world.”
The Amtrak train was 10 cars long. The Mendozas sat in the fourth car along with the other families who were singled out for the tour. Barack and Michelle Obama (who was celebrating her 45th birthday), and Vice President-elect Joe Biden and his wife Jill were in the last car, an historic Pullman Standard built in 1939.
The guests were served lunch between Wilmington and Baltimore, and Obama came up front to shake hands and sign mementos.
“I asked him if he remembered me, and he said yes,” Mendoza said. “I didn’t get nervous or anything.”
Looking out the window as the train slowed through small towns, Mendoza was struck by the people who lined the tracks, braving the weather to catch sight of the president-elect.
“People were probably waiting a long time to get a glimpse, and here I had a bird’s-eye view,” she said.
“I realized how lucky I am.”
Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at stetreault @stephensmedia.com or 202-783-1760.