Ben Cortes recently skipped a few days of school, but the eighth grader’s teachers at St. Mary’s-Colgan Junior High didn’t mind at all.

Ben Cortes recently skipped a few days of school, but the eighth grader’s teachers at St. Mary’s-Colgan Junior High didn’t mind at all.
In fact, they were delighted he was gone, and eager to hear all about his experiences at the inauguration of President Barack Obama in Washington, D.C.
Cortes, son of Dean and Paige Cortes, Pittsburg, was invited to be a Junior Inaugural Scholar at the Junior Presidential Youth Inaugural Conference.
“You had to have attended a National Youth Leadership conference to be invited to this,” he said. “We signed up for me to attend this even before we knew who was going to be president, because we knew it was going to be interesting either way.” 
He said there were about 2,800 youngsters in his group, as well as another 2,000 in the high school and college age group.
A variety of speakers were arranged for the scholars. On his first night there, Cortes heard a talk by Erik Weihenmayer, filmmaker, mountaineer and author.
“He was the first blind man to reach the peak of Mt. Everest,” Cortes said. “He told us about a paralyzed friend who used pull-ups to get up the rock faces. It was pretty amazing.”
Another speaker was Gen. Colin Powell, former U.S. secretary of state.
“He spoke to us about his military experiences and experiences as secretary of state,” Cortes said. “Then we broke up into small groups of about 17 people to look at how Gen. Powell exhibited leadership and other topics.”
Another stop was  the Newseum, a museum devoted to the news media, for an exploration of First Amendment issues.
“We saw an IMAX movie on some major reporters, including one from the Revolutionary War, a woman who was a pioneer of investigative reporting, and an English reporter who broadcast radio news during the bombing of London,” Cortes said.
After that, the scholars went to the University of Maryland to hear a presentation on global warming by Al Gore, former U.S. vice president and Nobel Prize winner.
Most of the scholars were getting to bed around 1 a.m. and back up at 5 a.m. That changed on inauguration day.
“That day we had to get up at 4 a.m., and some of the girls got up at 2 a.m. to get their hair fixed,” Cortes said. “Then we went to the buses to go to the inauguration. They stopped at the Air and Space Museum to get us hot chocolate, but that may have been a bit of a mistake. It took so long — it took us 30 minutes to go 50 feet — and we were afraid we weren’t going to make it to the Mall.”
However, Cortes and his group members were fortunate — they made it to the Mall and found space to stand near the Washington Monument.
“We were there when the speeches began and the president was sworn in,” he said. “We didn’t really see it because there were so many people, but we heard it and that was good.”
Security was tight, and the Colgan student said he was pretty sure a Secret Service agent was standing behind him at the Mall.
“He wore a trench coat and dark glasses, and had no expression generally,” Cortes said.
While it was bitterly cold that day, Cortes said he wasn’t that chilly.
“For me it was pretty warm because everybody was clumped together,” he said. “People could push you over but you couldn’t fall because everybody was so packed together. It was horrible, but it was worth it.”
The youth event ended with a gala ball featuring music and games at the 4-H Center.
“It was completely crazy,” Cortes reported. “I met a lot of new friends. Our bus was just crazy because we were such good friends. By the end of the last day, everyone was kind of mad that it didn’t last longer.”
He and his parents said they were grateful to school officials and teachers for allowing him to take the time off, and to teacher Peggy Fleming for nominating Cortes for the National Youth Leadership event.
He has already presented a program on his experiences for the Sunflower Kiwanis Club.
“Some of the teachers have asked me to talk to their classes about it,” he said.
The trip was a great experience, but Cortes was still happy to get home — and get some sleep.
“I usually go to bed at 11 p.m., so I’ve been yawning all week since I got back,” he said.