Last week while waiting in line for former President Jimmy Carter for a book signing, I met Rachel, Eddie, and Aisha. They were in front of me in line at 7:15 a.m. on a sunny July morning. The three of them, all 12 years old, are students in the High Jump Chicago program, an enrichment program for Chicago public school students with academic potential but limited economic means. They attend all summer and on Saturdays during the school year, for two years. The three, along with assorted family members, got up very early in the morning to make it from their cozy beds to a sidewalk in front of the Seminary Co-op Bookstore in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood. The Secret Service needed to see the press at 7:30 in the morning as part of their security check of the premises, conducted four-and-a-half-hours before Carter arrived.
The press included these three students, dressed in distinctive blue T-shirts from High Jump, who prepared questions to interview Carter. To develop their questions, they had researched Carter and his time at the White House. Rachel knew, for example, that Carter was the first president to have installed a solar panel on the White House. Aisha had a more personal and disarming question: she intended to ask Carter what world problems kept him awake at night.
This summer field trip almost unraveled when the students and their Issues and Ideas teacher, Jill, were informed that Carter did not plan to take any questions. There followed discussion, some wheedling and pressing, retrenching. Well, I offered, this is part of a journalist’s lot: things don’t always go as planned. Write about what happens, regardless. That’s plan B.
The students retreated to the store’s Plein Air Café, since there were hours to go before Carter arrived. A compromise emerged: they were first in line when Carter arrived very punctually for his noon signing. By then the line stretched out the bookstore door and south down Woodlawn Avenue.
As it turned out, Carter did respond to questions. The 90-year-old former president is working on another book; pessimistic about prospects for Middle East peace (remember he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002 for his peacemaking efforts through his Carter Center); and thinks of Donald Trump as a gift to Democrats. The three middle-schoolers were at the head of a line of about 600 people.
This is my Plan B. I wrote it since my photo didn’t get used. But I also wrote it because it was an exhilarating day that reminded me of how much fun it is to listen to people’s stories, especially those people standing in line. Thanks, Rachel, Eddie, and Aisha. I hope you got a story too. My final advice: It pays to get up early sometimes.