I’m a Medicare-card-carrying, almost retired public school teacher.
So, I don’t get invited out a lot.
I have nothing on my calendar between now and the second night of Passover.
My friends post pictures of themselves standing on the red carpet at the Emmy Awards, protesting at Standing Rock, vacationing in Fiji.
I post pictures of my golden retriever Leo, sleeping.
But a few weeks ago, all that changed.
In 2013, my wife Amy and I co-founded POPStheclub (www.popstheclub.com), a non-profit that supports students whose lives have been impacted by the incarceration of a loved one.
One early November morning, Amy got an email inviting her to attend a Convening on Criminal Justice Reform.
At the White House.
She was invited and invited to bring a POPS student along.
I wasn’t invited.
But she had a prior commitment to participate in a summit on Toxic Stress and the Children of the Incarcerated in Long Beach, California.
So, she asked me to represent.
Which is how this humble public servant ended up dressed in a nice suit and standing in the East Wing of the White House listening to distinguished speakers including Senior Advisor to the President Valerie Jarrett, Attorney General Loretta Lynch, Ford Foundation President Darren Walker, Newark Municipal Court Judge Victoria Pratt and activist DeRay McKesson.
Following this moving event and the glittery reception, an intern led a group of us out by way of the Christmas tree and a wall which displayed portraits of President Obama and Vice President Biden. We all stopped for selfies.
Finally, I had something to post, to brag about, with which to impress my 43 Facebook friends. The next day after breakfast with a DC friend, a brisk walk up the Mall from the Lincoln Memorial to the Capitol Building, I flew home to LA.
Amy picked me up at LAX and drove us home where Kharon Benson, a young filmmaker who had been our houseguest, awaited us. At the summit in Long Beach, Kharon had screened his film, The Visit, which tells the story of his relationship with his father incarcerated in Sing Sing.
“You remember Kharon?” Amy asked.
I’d met him last summer in NYC when Amy and I visited Echoes of Incarceration where Karon learned to make films.
“How’d your screening go?”
“Good,” Kharon said.
“He’s being modest. He’s a superstar,” Amy said. “Everyone at the conference loved him. But more on that later. I’m dying to hear about your trip. Did you hear the President speak? Tell me you saw Michelle.”
“No. Hey, Kharon, ever been to D.C.?”
“Yeah. Actually, been in the White House. Three times.”
“As a guest.”
“Social climber,” I thought. “Overachiever.”
“The first time was I was honored as part of a safety patrol in elementary school. Then I was invited with Echoes to present The Visit. And the third time…”
I didn’t want to hear about the third time. Kharon is 24. I was afraid he’d say he’d gotten The Medal of Honor.
“You know, it’s late,” I said. “And I’ve got to teach tomorrow. I’m going to call it a night.”
The next day at a POPS meeting at Venice High, Carol Burton, a board member who had flown in from Oakland, gave me a hug.
“I heard you represented POPS at the White House,” she said.
“It was amazing. I’m still processing…”
She smiled and nodded.
“I’m flying out right after our meeting to go to D.C. There’s a Champions of Change reunion…”
“…what are Champions of Change?”
“Amy never told you? The Obama Administration created it to honor people who are doing innovative work. I was honored for my work with families of the incarcerated. We’re having a big reunion…”
“…at the White House?”
“The Obama Administration named you a Champion of Change?”
“They did. Tell me, did you see the President?”
“No. I think he was attending a Christmas Party in the West Wing. I was probably seven or eight hundred yards away from him.”
Carol smiled, nodded.
“Ahh,” she said. I worried that she felt a little pity.
A few days later, this happened.
I was checking my Facebook page and the top post of one of my friends read:
My partner, Ted Melfi, is right now screening his film, HIDDEN FIGURES, at the WHITE HOUSE. No big deal. Just sayin’.
My first thought was, “Apparently, everyone goes to the White House. More people are going to the White House than going to see the Lakers play.”
I was down for just a little while, but when I think about it, I know that attending the Convening, hearing and meeting people who have devoted their lives for the public good while expecting little in return, was a great honor. A big deal. Bragging is beside the point.
Listening to some of my heroes urge us to continue to fight for justice, to defend the underdog, the forgotten, the poor, especially in the face of the incoming administration, that was inspiring.
Photo credit: Getty Images