Chilean president revisits school in Bethesda

She went there at age 12 while living in D.C.


BETHESDA -- The pupils assigned to greet Chile's new president on her visit to her old middle school yesterday had their instructions: Stay in line, let the president come to you, wave those tiny American and Chilean flags.

"They just told us to be polite, use good manners," said Nanatwum Agyire, a seventh-grader from Chevy Chase, as he stood with a few dozen classmates at the entrance to Westland Middle School.

They were awaiting the arrival of Dr. Michelle Bachelet, 54, a pediatrician, a former Chilean defense minister, the first woman elected president of Chile, a survivor of dictator Augusto Pinochet's terrors and a former pupil at the school.

"They told us she was a lady, and I was kind of surprised it was the first lady president," said Nanatwum, 12, the age Bachelet was when she attended classes at Westland in 1963, when it was called Western Middle School. "They just told us that it's a big deal."

That was evident enough, as the 59 members of the school's brass band took their seats alongside the walkway, as television crews and photographers massed at the curbside, as two vans pulled up to disgorge men in dark suits wearing coiled wires in their ears and as a Secret Service agent in a dark gray suit and sunglasses shouted last-minute instructions to the children in the welcoming party: Don't block the walkway. Wave those flags.

About 400 pupils broke into applause when Bachelet walked into the cafeteria and took her seat on the small stage. She accepted greetings and a few gifts: a Chilean bellflower plant shipped in for the occasion from California, a handmade shawl and a drawing of nearby Glen Echo Park.

Forty-three years have passed since Bachelet was a student here for a year while her father, Chilean air force Gen. Alberto Bachelet Martinez, was assigned to the Chilean Embassy in Washington. By 1973, the family was back in Chile, where the general was working for the left-wing government when a coup backed by the United States toppled President Salvador Allende and installed the right-wing Pinochet.

A report in The New York Times said General Bachelet declined to go into exile, was imprisoned and, after months of torture, died of a heart attack in 1974. The same year, the Times reported, the young woman who was to become president was held in one of Pinochet's secret prisons and tortured - beaten, blindfolded and tied up for long periods to a chair.

Her time in a comfortable life in Bethesda was part of a different past.

"It's, I would say, a strange feeling to come back," Bachelet told the group yesterday. Living in Bethesda, she said, "was a wonderful experience. I had the opportunity to learn to know a country where a lot of cultures, a lot of traditions can live together, a lot of ethnic groups can get along."

Despite U.S. support for Pinochet, who held power until 1990, Bachelet betrayed neither bitterness nor irony when she said she had appreciated living in the United States, a country "where democracy, freedom and human rights were important."

Bachelet walked into her old school as the school band played the Chilean national anthem, a difficult piece written in a key that band director Mary Garay said includes more sharp notes than the young musicians are used to.

Days earlier, the band had recorded the piece and sent it to the Chilean Embassy, just to be safe.

"They sent back word they were very impressed," said Garay. "They said in the past they've had some surprises."

Bachelet strode in under banners greeting her in four languages: welcome, benvenuto, bienvenidos, bienvenue.

The polyglot theme infuses Westland, where about 980 students from more than 40 countries study in a program designed by the International Baccalaureate Organization.

Through academics and community and international service projects, pupils learn "to become global citizens in a responsible way," said Principal Ursula Hermann. "You play a part in making the world a better place."

Given the makeup of the school and its mission, visits from foreign embassy officials are not unusual. Yesterday's event, however, "was, of course, a remarkable event for us," Hermann said. "She's an astonishing woman."

In response to a pupil's question, Bachelet acknowledged that there was a time "when we lost democracy, when we had a terrible time," but she put more emphasis on her hope for her presidency.

"I'm standing up here in front of you - you see a woman, the first woman president of Chile. Any one of you boys and girls can in the future be a president," said Bachelet, who took three questions from pupils that had been screened by the Chilean Embassy, plus a few questions that were not planned. She took no questions from reporters.

Asked how she felt as Chile's first female president, she said: "I feel a huge responsibility. ... I won't fail, I'll do my best. I'll work hard ... to have a better Chile for all the Chileans who live there."

Her words looked toward the future, and so did her handlers, pressing her through crowds of pupils, security personnel and photographers who gathered around her as she moved from the platform toward the cafeteria door, shaking hands and smiling. She made it back outside minutes before 10 a.m., headed toward one more stop in Washington, then to the White House.

"Vamos," said a man in the security entourage.

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