It was a grey day outside, but I couldn’t tell anymore. I sat on the kind of plastic chair I remember from my school days behind blackout curtains backstage. In the distance I could hear the excited chatter of people waiting patiently in the BOZAR theatre.
That morning I had stood on stage to practice introducing the one man on the planet who needed no introduction. My audience had been scattered members of security personnel, local embassy staff and the former King of Belgium, who sat watching the preparations for the President’s visit nonchalantly, as if they were taking place in his own sitting room.
I was told by a staffer to lean into the Presidential lectern, but not to touch its expensive grey paint during my speech. I decided I would do my best not to touch anything and not to make any sudden movements either, less I be tackled to the floor by someone with an earpiece and a crew cut.
From the moment I had received the phone call only a few days earlier, Would you like to introduce the President? I had been living outside my own body, observing the surreal series events that had led to me sitting on that plastic chair behind the blackout curtains, feeling like a human sacrifice. There was only one answer to the question. Yes. But I knew I would have to face the other question. Why? Why you?
The stress was immense. I’d stopped eating and sleeping. I asked my parents to fly over. They tried to feed me bits of muffin. I was on autopilot. My phone rang every few minutes like a Wall Street movie prop. You’ve been cleared by security. Can you walk in heels? Erm… Maybe don’t wear heels… Why are you introducing Obama?
Then with three days to go we had to get ready. I called Jennifer in New York. Don’t worry, I’ll fly over. I have airmiles. A whole day was spent calling and emailing and calling again to fill 50 places in the audience with friends of Leadarise from six countries. The outfit? An afternoon to find that. Then there was the speech. A morning to write that. My words were passed on to the White House speechwriters. They shorten them slightly.
I have one night left.
Alone in my flat I try to sleep, but instead I have a horrific nightmare of being strangled, so I settle for staying awake. I didn’t want to mess up my hair anyway.
And then there I was, sitting in the kind of chair that transports you back to your school exams, feeling like an impostor in the empty void of the blackout curtains. I was nobody and, in trying to maintain basic function as a nobody, I had not prepared one jot for what I would actually say to Mr President. As this realisation hits and my stomach sinks, he towers above me. God he’s tall. How did I not know that he was tall?
To say my chat was lacking is an understatement. I spent my five minutes with the most powerful man in the world talking about haggis and wishing I had googled his love for golf. Mr President beams at me with interest and positions me for the camera. The picture doesn’t make it into the White House facebook album, probably because you can tell my brain has taken a long vacation. He signs the speech I had choked and spat water on minutes before with a sharpie. Barack Obama is warmth and wit and wisdom personified.
Mr President gives me an incredible gift. His speechwriters have written me into his speech. I hear the words echo around the theatre. And it is you, the young people of Europe, young people like Laura, who will help decide which way the currents of our history will flow. I learn that speechwriters do this all the time when I take up the job myself a few months later, but that doesn’t make the impact of those words any less significant for me personally.
At first the burden was heavy. People asked What will you do next? Everyone had their own idea about how those five minutes should impact on my life. I should work harder, aim higher, save the world and such.
I’ve been processing those five minutes for over two years now and my take on it is a little different. There are plenty of people like me out there willing to do a bit of volunteering in their spare time, interested in learning from others, excited to find solutions to common problems. Our history may have its ebbs and flows, but even the smallest actions for a greater good, whether they are made by a nobody or a President can set us on a better course.
All I did was channel my frustrations as a young woman into trying to help other young women in some small way, but I won’t be young forever. My journey is my own and my blackout with Obama taught me to live in the moment more, to trust that things will work out better than you imagined and to live your own story on your own terms. There are many ways to change the world and many ways to be happy.