President Xi Jinping wowed Lincoln High School on Wednesday.
Students sat in stillness, all eyes front, as he addressed an assembly of about 300 proud Lincoln Abes and various local dignitaries.
A translator interpreted his words as he spoke of his yearning for knowledge as a young man and how he would walk many kilometers to borrow a book to read.
“Education represents the future of a country,” he said. “You are the future.”
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Xi also brought a big surprise: He invited 100 students from Lincoln to be guests of the Chinese government next year.
That elicited a standing ovation. School officials later said they did not know the offer was coming and that they are awaiting details.
“I could tell he was really taken with my kids,” Principal Pat Erwin said.
Xi also presented the school with three bookshelves full of volumes about his country, as well as some ping pong equipment. Students are too young to remember that one of the early symbols of thawing relations between China and the U.S. happened in the 1970s when China invited American ping pong players to visit what had been a closed country.
Xi related the history, noting that it’s often said in China that the two countries “used a small ball to turn around a big ball – our planet Earth.”
Members of the Lincoln football team ran a few drills for the president in the school gym, while the Lincoln drumline offered a thundering welcome as Xi and his entourage entered the historic school auditorium. Lincoln alum and former NFL player Lawyer Milloy was also on hand to explain to the president what the football players were doing.
Xi was clearly impressed with not only the Lincoln students, but with the century-old school building. He called Lincoln “a beautiful and dynamic school.”
“I was overwhelmed by warmth and friendship upon entering the school,” Xi said.
Lincoln choir students sang “In the Fields of Hope,” one of the signature songs of Xi’s wife, Peng Liyuan, a popular folk singer who stood and received a standing ovation from students. They had only a little over a week to learn the song in Chinese.
They also performed Louie Armstrong hit “What a Wonderful World.”
Mushawn Knowles, a member of the Abe football team, posed for pictures carrying a special edition of a Lincoln football jersey made for the president. On the front, it said “Abes.” And on the back “Xi.” They assigned him the No. 1. The team presented the president with both the jersey and a football.
“It was an amazing experience,” Knowles said after the president departed. “It’s unbelievable that I got to shake the president of China’s hand.”
Other students participating in the welcome included students from Lincoln’s girls basketball and volleyball teams, ASB leaders and students from the Advanced Placement government class of Nathan Gibbs-Bowling, who earlier this week was named Washington Teacher of the Year.
Asked which was more thrilling — being honored for his teaching or meeting President Xi — Gibbs-Bowling said he had to pick the president.
“Because it happened in my house,” he said. “These are my kids.”
Gibbs-Bowling said his students were definitely impressed.
“When he shook their hands, it was like they were meeting the Beatles in the ’60s,” he said.
One reason Xi chose to visit Lincoln was because of Tacoma’s sister city relationship with the Chinese city of Fuzhou, where he was a government official. Xi visited Tacoma 21 years ago to help establish that relationship.
In 2008, Lincoln HIgh School signed a memorandum of understanding with the Affiliated High School of Fuzhou Institute of Education to promote faculty, student, cultural and sports exchanges.
Tacoma Public Schools has forged several other ties with China. Later this school year, up to 50 Chinese students are expected to enroll at Foss High School, and several Tacoma teachers are scheduled to visit China.
Alexis Choy, one of the student government leaders who attended the assembly, said it was a long day for her. She arrived at school at 7 a.m. and was still waiting for the president after 5 p.m.
But when Xi waved to her while she stood in the welcome line, she was thrilled.
“My heart was beating fast,” she said.