I had just hung up the phone in the main office when I got the word: “She wants to see you.”
"She" was the principal. I was actually excited to speak to her. I had just gotten off the phone with Senator Joe Biden’s office. Everything was set for tomorrow. He would be speaking to my eighth-grade social studies class. In fact, we were going to be cramming both classes into one room. In 2003, social distancing was unheard of.
His office had asked me who would be introducing him. I would, of course.
“The senator will speak for exactly 30 minutes, then take questions for 15 minutes,” the woman had said. “When he arrives at your school, someone should immediately direct him to the room where he will speak.”
“Got it,” I said.
I was excited to tell the principal as I walked into her office, but she was clearly not in the mood to hear me gloat about my special visitor.
She asked me to sit down.
She removed her glasses and massaged the space between her eyes. “He’s not happy,” she said.
“Who?” I asked.
She put her glasses back in place and glared at me.
“Oh,” I said. The pastor was not happy. “How bad?” I asked.
“He reminded me we are a Catholic school,” she said. That meant it was bad. She was the most Catholic person I had ever known.
“What’s the problem?” I asked.
“Your visitor,” she said. “He wants to know who invited him.”
I was surprised. “Why?” I asked.
She sighed. “As you know, Senator Biden holds views that aren’t in line with our Catholic faith.”
“So what?” This was also true of several of the teachers in the building.
“So he’s worried we’re going to be in the news. He says we shouldn’t be endorsing him.”I leaned forward in my chair. “This isn’t a campaign rally,” I said. “He’s coming to speak about the separation of powers in the Constitution.”
“I know,” she said. “He represents us in Congress,” I said. “He does that whether we agree with him or not.”
“I know,” she said again.
“Well, I don’t see the problem,” I said.
“The pastor of this parish does,” she said.
I sighed. “You're the boss,” I said. “Do I need to rescind the invitation?”
She closed her eyes and shook her head. “I don’t think it will come to that.”
“Good,” I said. That would have been embarrassing.
“Just remember this next time you invite someone, okay?”
Remember what? I thought. “Okay,” I said. “Are you coming to my class tomorrow?”
She smiled. “Of course I am.”
The senator arrived promptly at 9:55 the next morning, and I stepped into the hallway to greet him. A man in a suit grabbed me by the hand before I could. He leaned close to me and said, “He’s going to stop talking at 10:30. He’ll take questions til 10:45. Then we have to go. Do you understand?”
“Got it,” I said.
With that, the man stepped aside and allowed me to shake hands with Senator Joe Biden. After introducing myself, and exchanging kind pleasantries, I led him into my classroom.
I stepped to the front and looked out over my two classes of eighth-graders and my principal, who stood smiling in the back of the room. I’d invited the pastor, but he chose not to attend.
“As you know, we have a guest this morning,” I began. “He’s represented Delaware in Congress for most of my life and all of yours. And who knows what the future holds?” Out of the corner of my right eye, I could see Joe Biden look at the class and shrug playfully. “Please welcome Senator Joe Biden,” I said.
My two classes of eighth-graders stood and applauded cheerfully. They were awestruck. No doubt about it, this guy lit up the room.
Joe Biden started by telling us about himself. Growing up. Law school. His family. The class gasped when he mentioned how he had lost his wife and daughter in a car accident thirty years earlier. I saw many of them glance at me when he said it. I think they wondered if I had known that. I did.
After that sad moment, he decided to get to it. “So why am I here?” he asked with a big smile. He pointed at a girl in the front row. “Megan’s mommy knows me,” he said. Delaware is small. “And she asked if I could come to her class to talk about the three branches of government.” Poor Megan turned red, and I could see it on her face. Mommy?
The senator grabbed a piece of chalk and started making notes on the board. Most of us could not read his writing as he was writing much faster than he was talking. But that didn’t matter. A sitting member of Congress was going on about how important it was for one branch to be in charge of the money while other branches were in charge of carrying out policy. The students had heard it all from me, but this was understandably different. They were entranced.
The man in the suit was suddenly standing in the doorway. It was 10:45. Without stopping, Joe raised a finger to him. “Just another couple minutes,” he said. The man disappeared back into the hallway.
Biden was in his element and couldn’t be stopped. He went on about checks and balances, judicial review, veto power, filibusters. He was sharp.
At 11:05, the man was in the doorway again. This time, he was pointing to his watch. The senator raised the same finger. “Almost,” he said. The class laughed. The man stepped back into the hallway.
“Okay,” Joe said a short time later as if surrendering to the clock. “They told me there would be questions, so maybe we have time for one. Who has one?”
A boy named Kyle raised his hand and Joe pointed at him. Kyle stood and asked the perfect eighth-grade question. “Have you ever met the president?”
Joe nodded. “I was with President Bush yesterday,” he said. “He had a few of us in the Oval Office to talk about the budget.” He looked around the room. “Want to know why I like him?”
The class collectively nodded their heads.
With that, he asked a boy in the front row to stand. “I won’t embarrass you, don’t worry,” he said to Bill. “This is what the president does.”
He put an arm around Bill’s shoulder and pulled him close like they were old pals. Then he put his mouth next to Bill’s ear and imitated George W. Bush. “Now, come on, Joe,” he said. “You’re gonna go with me on this right? Come on, Joe!”
The class broke into uproarious laughter. Bill sat down.
“People always ask me what the president is like,” he said. “I’ve worked with a bunch of them, and I can tell you about all of them. Jimmy Carter was extremely polite and formal. Ronald Regan was just as funny as anybody you’d ever meet. Bill Clinton was actually almost exactly like the current President Bush. They’re less formal, and they both work hard to get both sides to support each other. And Bush doesn’t mind when I tell him he’s dead wrong about something. That’s why I like the president.”
The man was at the door again. This time the senator was ready to go. They’d made me agree to forty-five minutes, but it was now well over an hour. The man in the suit was smiling, but he wasn’t happy. “We have a train to catch,” he said to the class, almost apologizing for taking their guest away.
The class stood and applauded as the future president shook my hand, waved, and exited the room.
A week later, I was back in the principal’s office.
“I thought it went great,” I said.
“It did,” she said.
“So am I in trouble with the pastor?” I asked.
“Of course not,” she said. “I think his biggest concern was that we’d be in the papers.”
I leaned forward. “Well, I am going to put it in the school newspaper,” I said.
Her face dropped. “Please don’t,” she said.
“I have to,” I said.
“He’s a national figure. He spoke to my class. I can’t pretend it didn’t happen just because we have disagreements.”
She sighed and nodded. She knew I was right.
Fifteen years later, on New Year’s Day of 2018, late in the evening, we had to stop at Staples. I needed ink for my printer. My wife and kids waited in the car while I ran inside.
I found what I needed in the nearly empty store and made my way to the checkout counter. As I ran my card, I heard a familiar voice directly behind me.
“Do you need me to slide my card again?” an older man was asking.
“I think it’s a chip, sir,” the young man behind the counter said. “You have to insert it.”
“I see,” the man said.
I looked at the clerk in front of me with an expression that silently asked the question. She smiled and nodded. “It’s him,” she whispered.
Joe Biden and I turned around to face each other at exactly the same time. His face was different. Understandably tired after eight years as Vice President. His eyes lit up when he saw me.
“Hey, man!” he said as he thrust out his hand for me to shake it. Did he really recognize me? I thought.
“Nice to see you, Mr. Vice President,” I said.
“You, too,” he said.
“If you wouldn’t mind waving to the family parked outside, I’m sure they’d appreciate it,” I said.
“Will do,” he said. “Nice to see you.” He and Jill Biden made their way to the exit.
Just before they left, the clerk shouted, “I hope you run for president!”
Joe Biden turned around and smiled.
“We’ll see,” he said.