Students from across the State experience nation’s capital

I never knew words could take someone more than 500 miles away from home, let alone allow her or him to experience the structure of America’s history.

Initially, this writing contest was simply a requirement for my Advanced Placement English class, and I had to fight the urge to blow it off as an easy A. When my teacher got more in-depth about the details of the Washington Youth Tour, the once-in-a-lifetime trip to our nation’s capital and prize for winning the competition, I was immediately flooded with theme ideas while a small voice was telling me to be realistic about my chance at winning. I did the research, delving deep into the Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association’s website to learn about the organization’s history and many branching paths, finding as much as I could learn about the state’s electric cooperatives. In five days, I crafted a short composition to my satisfaction.

Volunteer Energy Cooperative delegates visit Mount Vernon.

I submitted the essay and let myself forget about it. My English teacher tracked me down in March after I had finished his class and informed me that my essay won and I would be taking the trip to Washington, D.C. Word got around to friends and teachers at school. My school’s news channel broadcast my first meeting with Jay Sanders, the chaperone from Middle Tennessee Electric Membership Corporation, as he awarded me a check and announced the trip.

Hannah Bradley, Duck River EMC, poses with Holocaust survivor Nat Shaffir.

Over the next few months, I anxiously thought about going to D.C. My cooperative sponsored 14 other students with whom I would spend all my time, and we would join hundreds more from all over Tennessee. This would be my first time to go anywhere without my family. When my mom and I pulled up to the buses on Friday morning, June 8, at the Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association office in Nashville, my heart sank with anxiety, but I forced myself to open up and talk to everyone I could.

After getting to know my busmates well on the long ride to Virginia, we took off on Saturday morning for Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson. It’s old-fashioned and gorgeous, full of oddities with very practical uses, and I enjoyed seeing all of his personal interests making a place in his home: gadgets, books, science, history. The estate is vast, including former slave houses, a farm and cemetery. Oddly, his family cemetery didn’t leave me with an eerie feeling at all — more of a feeling of peace. Leaving Monticello, we traveled to the Marine Corps Museum in Quantico, Virginia, where we toured the impressive facility honoring the Corps’ rich history with life-size models of war stories. Personally, I loved studying the mannequins that simulated battles or sieges. They made everything so lifelike, so real.

Kalena Taylor, Cumberland EMC, examines the wall at the Korean War Veterans Memorial.

Saturday turned into night, and our last event of the evening was a guided tour among famous monuments. Beginning with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s, we saw memorials honoring Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Lincoln and Vietnam and Korean War veterans. As twilight became darker, the stone monuments looked hauntingly beautiful. Martin Luther King looked tall and powerful, like the kind of man who could break oppression. Not a word could be heard at the walls of the Vietnam memorial as I searched for names with crosses to pay my respects; the air felt thick with sorrow. The wary and uncertain eyes of steel Korean veteran statues were unsettling, but I didn’t want to leave the memorial at all.

There never seemed to be enough time at each place. It seemed that every time I got invested in learning, we had to move on.

Clad in colorful bus t-shirts, Tennessee’s contingent on the 2018 Washington Youth Tour gathers near the U.S. Capitol.

Sunday began with a trip the Smithsonian museums, single-handedly the event I thought would be the most exciting (I was wrong: Each day was just as exciting as the last!). We only had six hours to explore, eat lunch and meet back on the buses, which sounds like an acceptable amount of time, but not for a museum complex that boasts 325,000 square feet of exhibits. I’ll never forget tour director Todd Blocker roaming the Smithsonian, making sure everyone was having a good time — showing how much care he had for our trip. He made me feel valued as a participant of the tour. With a slight change of plans from the schedule, we next went to Toby’s Dinner Theatre. The Tennessee students shared the large dining room with delegates from Georgia, and we bonded over state chants and creamy mac and cheese. The steaming buffet rolled away to reveal a stage right in the middle of a dining-room-turned-theater.

The NRECA Youth Day kicked off Monday morning with a nationwide breakfast and program featuring inspirational guest speaker Mike Schlappi. He made me laugh, cry and feel grateful for what I have as he spun his wheelchair across the stage and cracked jokes about his paralysis and the injury that caused it. The rest of our day was spent at the Holocaust Museum, which was haunting, and a presentation from a Holocaust survivor was an incredibly eye-opening look into that time period. Later that day, the group left for Arlington National Cemetery, resting place of President John Kennedy and thousands upon thousands of veterans. The place smelled of dew, and the visitors were silent. My friend, Breanna, and I quietly read the names on the tombstones, paying verbal respects to them because we both knew some of them probably hadn’t been visited in years.

Paralympic gold medalist Mike Schlappi gives a touching, thought-provoking presentation at Youth Day.

Members of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment perform the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery.

Tuesday at Mount Vernon was refreshing. The warm morning air made me sweat as we walked around the mansion, relishing any cool breeze that came by. George Washington’s house is quaint, not large or garish, but perfect for him and his family. My co-op decided to make a slightly imperfect human pyramid on Washington’s backyard. At our next stop, intricate stories contained in the stained glass of the Washington National Cathedral had me at a loss for words, and I loved how they projected rainbows on the ceiling of the church.

Tennessee delegates tour the Washington National Cathedral

Delegates visit the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial

On Wednesday, after we met Tennessee’s members in the U.S. House and Senate, I indulged my deep fascination with the books on every subject lining the walls of the Library of Congress (I was disappointed in knowing that I wasn’t allowed to explore the shelves.). I do believe that our time spent at the Capitol building and Library of Congress as well as our visit to the National Cathedral were my absolute favorite stops of the entire trip. They seemed to meet my personal interests and had incredible visual beauty that I never wanted to look away from. They will be my first picks if I am able to revisit parts of D.C.

There never seemed to be enough time at each place. It seemed that every time I got invested in learning, we had to move on. The explorer in me emerged and wanted to roam in the halls behind each closed door. Something about Washington, D.C., was captivating, and I couldn’t get enough of it. As the week dwindled to an end, I wanted to forever live in that little exploration bubble with my co-op friends. I wished we could all continue to travel and tour together — listening to our co-op leaders, Sandra and Jay, bicker about fake tanner and salmon-colored men’s shorts — allowing the adventure to take us wherever it would. But we would have to go back home eventually, back to reality.

Tired Tennesseans rest during a brief break on the whirlwind Washington Youth Tour.

Our final bonding moments happened on our last night. With students from all over the nation, we danced and sang, letting music and food distract us from the inevitable return to the Nashville airport the next day. I shared hugs and laughs with everyone, hoping that wasn’t the last chance we would have to do so. When we retired to our rooms that night, I felt fulfilled in knowing that I got to know these people so closely. The plane ride home was quick and uneventful, and our final goodbyes were scattered and few. On the way home, I gushed to my mom about the trip and how sad I felt knowing it was over. She told me that I seemed like I didn’t want to be home at all. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to go home or that I didn’t miss my family — because I did. I was just going to miss the experience as a whole. We can never re-create what we had that week.

Sens. Lamar Alexander, left, and Bob Corker welcome the youth delegation to the U.S. Capitol.

The Youth Tour took me to arguably the most historic place in the United States. I just felt so lucky, almost undeserving. Just by reading my 780 words, someone thought that I should be allowed a place on the Washington Youth Tour. Imagine what could happen for me if I put forward that kind of effort in my day-to-day life.

I was ready and determined once I got home to begin looking again at colleges and scholarships. The trip showed me that my future is waiting; sitting and expecting life to just happen is unrealistic. If I had never written that essay or, instead, rushed just to get it done, the trip would have gone to someone else, and I would have never known. It reminded me that working for something feels so much more rewarding than just waiting for something to happen. I had to start making life happen on my own, I decided, by building connections and putting my work out into the world.

I will take this experience everywhere I go, telling anyone and everyone who can submit an essay to do so. Whether it’s for scholarships, competitions or an assignment with an unforgettable trip as the prize, your best effort can and will change your life.

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1 Comment

  1. Joan Kaser on

    I was very impressed with the article written by Katelyn Finley. She definitely has a talent as a writer and I hope she fulfills her dreams as a writer. We also enjoy your magazine and have learned a lot about the electric grid and our appliances.

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