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L.A. third-grader basks in glow of a presidential moment

Ethan Lopez, 8, is spotlighted by the media and cheered by his classmates for being selected by Obama to ask the final question at a town hall meeting.

March 21, 2009|Seema Mehta

Ethan Lopez became an instant celebrity at his Los Angeles elementary school Friday, the day after President Obama selected the 8-year-old to ask the final question at a town hall meeting. Media crews filmed the boy and his family while the school principal and teachers gushed over his question about teacher layoffs, and classmates cheered.

The moment was not lost on the third-grader.

"I felt very excited," he said. "I never talked to the president of the United States before. And then we got to meet him!"

It was perhaps the most moving few minutes at Obama's session in downtown Los Angeles on Thursday. After taking questions from several adults, the president announced he had time for one final question and said it should come from a young person. As many people throughout the Miguel Contreras Learning Complex gymnasium frantically waved their arms -- some entirely too old to qualify -- Obama chose Ethan, dressed smartly in a crisp, white shirt and striped tie.

"You look good in that tie," Obama said.

The small boy stood up and said, "Hi, my name is Ethan. President Obama, our school is in big trouble because our budget cuts . . . 25 of our teachers already have [received] pink slips."

He then handed the president a folder full of letters written by his classmates at Frank del Olmo Elementary School in Koreatown.

Obama told Ethan that he was doing everything he could to protect teachers' jobs and modernize schools, citing the economic-stimulus package. "I want you to get a first-class education," he said.

After the town hall ended, Ethan and his mother, Myrna, were whisked backstage, where they met the president and shook his hand.

"It was the experience of a lifetime," Myrna Lopez said.

She said her son showed interest in the campaign last year. He voted for Obama in an online Nickelodeon poll and accompanied his mother to the voting booth. But she was stunned that her normally timid son stood up and asked the president a question in front of several hundred people.

"I was surprised because he's very shy," she said. "I was very impressed."

Television crews descended on the school Friday morning, and Ethan's classmates relived the moment on video. It was a heady dose of attention for a school where more than 90% of the students receive free- or reduced-price lunches, an indicator of poverty, and nearly two-thirds are learning English as a second language.

This month, the Los Angeles Unified School District, which is grappling with a nearly $700-million shortfall over the next 18 months, notified 9,000 employees, including 5,500 teachers, that they could be laid off.

At Del Olmo Elementary, 27 of the school's 43 teachers have been given notices that they could be terminated.

If the layoffs are finalized, carefully created relationships among the school's teachers and the community will be harmed, Principal Eugene Hernandez said.

He was proud that Ethan tried to call attention to the matter.

"For a child to get up in front of the massive audience and to ask a question, I think that's very brave," he said. "It made me feel very proud -- we want our kids to have good self-esteem and feel confident. . . . He was not afraid to speak his mind and ask a curious question. That was good."

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seema.mehta@latimes.com

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