The image of Colin Powell displayed over his namesake elementary school on 15th Street in Union City has a dour expression on its face, perhaps the same one Powell once used when negotiating with hostile heads of state back in the day.
But when the flesh-and-blood Colin Powell came to visit on Tuesday, he was all smiles.
It would have been hard for him not to be, given all of the dazzling technology in the $34 million dollar facility, and the warm reception he received from local education officials and students.
Powell and his wife, Alma, were greeted with thunderous applause and a standing ovation, and after a pair of student performances — a fifth grade take on a Bruno Mars song and a second grade Spanish song for peace — made the couple blush, the day’s ceremonies could begin.
After a brief opening statement from Superintendent Stanley Sanger, Union City Mayor and State Senator Brian Stack made his admiration for Powell quite clear in his brief introduction.
“I couldn’t think of anyone else — and I mean that sincerely from the bottom of my heart — that this school should be named after than General Colin Powell,” he said.
“How did you become a general?” one student asked.
“Each and every single child in this auditorium has the chance to be a general,” he said. “You have a chance to excel.”
And with Union City’s educational system rapidly improving, Powell also took the time to encourage faculty and staff not to be satisfied with their success.
“We adults — mayor, superintendent, chairman of the board, principal, your teachers — we have nothing more important in life to do than to raise the next generation,” he said.
With the speech and fanfare out of the way, Powell took the chance to tour the school, getting an up-close and personal look at the school that molds itself in his image.
A gaggle of first graders doodling on an interactive SmartBoard display captivated him. “You’re not writing, you’re just scribbling!,” he said.
A brief question-and-answer session with students in the media center gave him a chance to speak with levity.
“How did you become a general?,” one girl asked.
“I hung around for 30 years,” Powell joked.
Along the way, the general was deluged with requests for handshakes, autographs, and pictures from students and faculty alike, who were awestruck by Powell’s presence.
Powell was the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff from 1989 to 1993, the first African American to serve in that position, and was secretary of state from 2001 to 2005.
Well-wishers were forced to tag along with Powell’s escort of administration and press around the school, which seemed to multiply each time one turned around.
For the tour’s final stop, Powell and his entourage were greeted by kindergarteners lining the walls, shouting, “We saw you on Youtube!” and “No excuses, sir!”
One kindergarten boy stood bolt-straight against the wall, saluting Powell.
Powell saluted back and kept walking, but the child’s salute held.
In a school like Colin Powell Elementary, there could be no greater sign of respect.