Fourteen-year-old James Valitchka has already accomplished more than most people will in a lifetime.
He has influenced tens of thousands of students with his anti-bullying advocacy and literacy speeches and is currently writing his ninth book.
And last Monday he met the man who has inspired him in so many ways.
U. S. President Barack Obama and the Appleby College student both gave speeches at a Washington high school the day before Obama’s inauguration. James had the opportunity to speak briefly with Obama.
“He told me to come back to Canada and tell the kids that they have the power to shape the world,” James said. “They have the potential to do great things.”
In a summary of his Washington trip James writes, “I had two seconds to meet him and he looked at me and said, ‘James, I believe that you and many young people will use your gifts and talents to make a positive change in the world around you. You can be that change.’ I looked at him and said, ‘Yes, I will, Sir.’”
James was in Washington for the inaugural session of Presidential Classroom, a program that teaches high school students about civics.
The program is typically for students in Grades 10 to 12, but his mother, Ally Valitchka says an exception was made for her son, a ninth grader.
They had political debates, researched Cabinet members, and heard from speakers such as Bill Clinton.
The journey to Washington started off in a bit of a panic, as they were running late. But this feeling is not unfamiliar to the Valitchka family.
“We have missed so many planes,” Valitchka laughs, adding that James is usually prepared while she’s the one who is disorganized.
Luckily, the bus did not leave without them and they departed Toronto at 7 a. m. for a journey that would exceed 12 hours.
James says there was an air of excitement on the bus with people chanting “Obama, Obama!” as the bus drew closer to Washington.
A similar spirit erupted in the overwhelming crowds at the inaugural address a few days later. When they arrived at 6 a. m. it was already packed. James recalls seeing young children waving flags and cheering. Nearly 2 million people came to watch the historic moment.
James witnessed this all on only two hours of sleep.
“There was this strange feeling inside me, this happiness.”
He was engrossed in the moment, he says, not worrying about what happened in the past, or what would happen in the future.
James and Obama actually have a lot in common. James is a dual American- Canadian citizen and also grew up without a father. James says he can relate to Obama because he is also bi-racial.
“Someone once told me, ‘That must suck for you because the black people think you’re white and the white people think you’re black.’ But you know, I don’t agree with that … you’re judged by the content of your character,” he says, referencing Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech.
Obama has inspired James to make influential life decisions, such as his dream to become a civil lawyer.
“(He’s) helped me see that we all have potential and purpose in life, and no matter what, we can overcome any obstacle.”
Obama’s openness about himself has also influenced him. In the past, James wouldn’t tell people about his work. But Obama’s honesty has inspired him to realize that he shouldn’t have to hide things about himself for fear of someone’s reaction.
“You should just go ahead and tell people. You have to speak the truth.”
About 600 students attended the Inaugural Presidential Classroom program. While there were some international students, James was the only Canadian. But he really bonded with the other students and they helped him understand some of the differences with the American election process.
Despite a busy schedule, there was still time for some fun.
“Roommates play tricks on the last day,” he says. “There’s a lot of funny stuff that happens. “
One of his roommates woke up covered in toothpaste and toilet paper.
James is planning to return to Washington for the Young Democrats program. He is scheduled to go to the Washington Model United Nations.
He is currently working on a project called Canadians for Barack Obama. The group is trying to get Obama to speak to a group of students when Obama visits Ottawa on Feb. 19.
James also plans to attend the Student Conference Celebrating Change in Ottawa in May, where they are also hoping Obama will make an appearance.
But for now, James will get back to doing normal teenager stuff, like working on his Romeo and Juliet essay, swim team practice and choir. And maybe, if he finds a spare moment, he’ll get back to working on his ninth book.