by Lauren Becker
Barack Obama was nine years old when he first determined his career path. He would be a superhero. His mom told him he could be anything; he was quite certain this was what he would be. He chose his name (Speedyman), costume (blue and white striped cape over blue swim trunks), and superpower (the ability to move at the speed of light). His mom advised that the members of the Justice League had all worked hard in school and earned good grades. She explained the intensely competitive process for membership in the League. He kept straight As and volunteered as a crossing guard for the little kids after school.
At 9 1/2, his cape began to fray and his friends stopped watching the Justice League. He got a new pair of swim trunks — orange with white hibiscus flowers — and set the ultimate goal for a kid in Hawaii. He would be a pro surfer.
His mom told him he could have a surfboard for his 10th birthday if he maintained his grades. He kept straight As, was appointed head crossing guard, waxed surfboards at a nickel a pop, and read to his grandmother, whose sight was poor. Though she preferred romance novels, his Nana conspired with his mother to redirect Barack’s ambitions. In the months before his birthday, he read Great Expectations, My Antonia, a biography of Abraham Lincoln, and a history of the Supreme Court.
For his 10th birthday, he requested a trip to Washington, D.C. Though she couldn’t afford it, his mom said yes. The morning of their departure, she found an old Tinker Toy can filled with quarters, dollar bills, and mostly nickels outside her bedroom door. She smoothed the bills and put them in her wallet. She would take the coins to the bank after they returned.
For nearly three years, he stuck to his new goal. He would go to law school, be a lawyer for awhile, become a Senator, then get appointed to the Supreme Court. He began nearly every request with, “May it please the court.”
The summer he turned 13, Kool and the Gang invaded Soul Train. He got down, like Kool and the Gang preached. He studied the Gang and trigonometry with conflicting, yet equally compelling, goals. He would be a member of the group or of the Court. He was 13. He became a disciple of the former.
He wanted an ironic name like Kool. He tried to get his friends to call him Bar, but no one could resist the legacy of his Kenyan father, Barack Obama, Sr., gone back to Africa when he was four. Even his teachers slipped and used the voluptuously-vowelled last name: Obama. He settled for the occasional “O,” lobbed at him by a lazy friend. When Star Wars was released three years later, he became “Obie.” He refused to see the movie. He considered going by O.B. until he saw the box in his mother’s bathroom. B.O. would not be an option, either.
Kool and the Gang’s popularity waned. In college, all of the guys went by their last names. Everyone called politicians and even members of the Supreme Court by their last names.
He went through college and law school without much thought to what he was called. He went through classic rock, hip hop, grunge, and rap phases. Classical helped him study. His discovery of Yo-Yo Ma rekindled envy for only a moment. Barack would be difficult enough. Yo-Yo was lucky he had musical talent.
Obama finished law school, doing what he needed to do to get to the U.S. Senate. He realized he could be President and revised his direction accordingly.
The people who got him elected told him the country was in no condition to “celebrate good times.” They chose a classic ballad for his inauguration song. He went along. It was an unnecessary battle.
That night, before taking the stage, he thought about what he would do next. A second term, of course. Then, another book or teaching or learning to surf. Or all. Or something else. Or more.
The audience chanted his last name. Under his breath, he matched the cadence with a few choruses of “get down on it.” He tied his tie like his mother had taught him. He remembered it all. He would remember everything.
Lauren Becker is editor of Corium Magazine. Her work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review, Juked, Hobart, Annalemma and elsewhere. She lives in the Bay Area.
* thanks to Amber Sparks and Brian Carr for their editorial work on this project.