There Are a Lot of Roads to Get Where You’re Going

Sam's Piece cropped

“There are a lot of roads to get where you’re going.” My nephew, Sam, said it was both humbling and relieving to witness this truth in his fellow interns during a 2013 summer internship in the office of Michelle Obama, First Lady of the United States. Three of those interns are now lifelong friends of Sam’s. Blaine hails from Weatherford, Oklahoma; Christina from Clearwater, Florida; Brian from Annapolis, Maryland; and Sam from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Their diverse paths brought them together for a few powerful months  to learn the true meaning of civic engagement and then catapulted each of these leaders into an exploration of their personal paths to passionate community service.  

The design of this art piece captures that sentiment. The four road maps start in each corner and converge and overlap in the center at the photo of the four of them at the gates of the White House. The yellow center lines are straight and direct leading to that center and then wind and twist around and through each section as their experiences did the same.

Those maps veer off and encircle four quadrants which depict the four main nuggets of wisdom that Sam garnered over the course of that summer – focus, sacrifice, fun and empathy – lessons learned and values deepened via his experiences, meeting other remarkable folks and remaining open and willing.

Focus: The top section shows a photo of the First Lady with Sam. She instilled the need for a strong work ethic focused on public service. Sam left knowing that every forward motion – law school and future jobs – must be be an intentional step toward this goal of serving. The name card and napkin were nabbed from his place setting of his first dinner at the White House the evening of the Ford’s Theater Gala. A few of Sam’s favorite quotes from those he met and heard speak are handwritten around the edges of this section. They are:

“Opportunity doesn’t always come at opportune times.” ~ Valerie Jarrett, Sr. Advisor to the President

“Why are you waiting to be asked? You’ve got to put your cards on the table and be willing to lose.” ~ Michelle Obama

“Don’t follow only what you know; follow a path that will teach you more.” ~ Melissa Winter, Deputy Chief of Staff to the First Lady

Top Quadrant

Sacrifice: Moving clockwise, the section on the right emphasizes the true meaning of public service. The interns had the rare opportunity to tour the CIA headquarters where they met people that serve our country without a trace of credit or recognition. This was a powerful example of pure public service, depicted with those words encircling the pin he received that day. He received another pin at the end of his tenure – one from Jason, the Secret Service agent who told Sam and his friends that he had been prepared to ‘take a bullet for them’ should the need arise. Another powerful example of the selflessness and sacrifice involved in a career in public service. And yet another example was that of seeing the first family up close – in person and via the First Lady’s correspondence received that he helped sort – and learning that the presidential life isn’t glamorous, but rather one filled with ongoing sacrifice.

The orange card was his pass to tour the House of Representatives where he embodied the ideal that trusting those we elect into office is paramount. And two gifts from the longtime, elder volunteers whom he worked alongside – a short thank you note from Martha Adams who has served the first lady weekly since Reagan’s term, and Joe Fitzgerald’s nickel created for the Westward Journey Nickel Series. More of Sam’s favorite quotes from this summer are relevant to this theme and thus written around this section.

“Don’t spend your time trying to be something. Spend it trying to do something.” ~ President Obama

“The penalty good men pay for indifference to public affairs is to be governed by people worse than themselves.” ~ Vice President Biden

“Community service and civic engagement are more than a job.” ~ Sam Bach

Right Quadrant

Fun: The bottom quadrant is all about fun and self care. A life of service can be depleting and time consuming. You’re no good to others unless you’re healthy and happy yourself. The main quote here: “Don’t take yourself too seriously”, comes from Valerie Jarrett. She is pictured laughing with President Obama alongside the image of the President laughing with VP Biden.

Sam’s favorite event of the summer was the Fourth of July picnic on the south lawn of the White House thus the photo of him there wearing the same volunteer badge below the photo. Driving home the theme, the band Fun. played at this event. His pass to the White House gym hangs right above a photo of Bo, the Obama’s dog (that he got to pet!!) – both good medicine for staying healthy and happy.

And the penguins. Sam loves penguins and somewhere along the line everyone learned this little tidbit when Meg, the Director of Correspondence, spotted his penguin screensaver that graced his official White House account. A running joke for the rest of the summer. Fun!!

Bottom Quadrant

Empathy: The remaining section, that on the left, is all about empathy – opening eyes to the problems people face and listening to the personal stories behind them, or, as written on the piece “BIGGER ISSUES ~ smaller stories”. The lack of benefits veterans have, the needs of the large homeless population in D.C. and across the nation, unemployment, climate change, LGBTQ rights, and of course the racism still present in our society including that faced by the First Family day in and day out. Empathy deepened with a trip to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum as well as viewing a pre-screening of the movie The Butler with the First Lady’s staff and the executive staff, i.e. the butlers and cooks who serve in the current administration.  The memorable quotes written around this area are:

“It’s not so dangerous when the truck driver doesn’t understand the elite, but it is dangerous when the elite doesn’t understand the truck driver.” – VP Biden

“When you die, you’re not going to remember the grades you got. You’re going to remember the moments you spent with your family and the people you helped.” ~ President Obama

Left Quadrant

Each quadrant is wallpapered with a news story that occurred during the summer of 2013. The acquittal of George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin, the revealing of Edward Snowden as the Ex-CIA employee who leaked classified information, the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down Proposition 8 – again – and re-permit same-sex marriages in California, and an article from Winona State, Sam’s alma mater, announcing Sam’s internship. A few events that were personally relevant to Sam were being present as Codray was confirmed as head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and meeting Elizabeth Warren and the President in person.

The four corners of the piece illustrate a few extra thoughts and images from Sam, shared via Facebook posts on the last day of his internship. He said it was depressing knowing this transformational time of his life was coming to a close. He and his friends were quiet as they walked from building to building to turn in their badges and say their goodbyes. Afterward they stood on the street outside the White House, hugged each other, and cried some. Not ready to officially part ways, they went to Johnny Rockets for burgers and, yes, to finally post their experiences on Facebook, something that was not allowed while they were interns. (A Johnny Rockets logo is hidden in the piece!) The Facebook posts in each corner are written and pictured below: 

Top left: “And it all ends in the same hallway it began.” ~ photo of Sam walking down the hallway of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building where he spent a lot of time during his internship

Top left: “And it all ends in the same hallway it began.” ~ photo of Sam walking down the hallway of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building where he spent a lot of time during his internship

Top Right: "I am so grateful I had the opportunity to serve in an administration I truly believe in. I will never forget this great experience or the people I have met." ~ Photo of First Lady Michelle Obama with her full team of interns.

Top Right: “I am so grateful I had the opportunity to serve in an administration I truly believe in. I will never forget this great experience or the people I have met.” ~ Photo of First Lady Michelle Obama with her full team of interns.

Bottom Right Corner

Bottom Right: Milestone – “Left Job at The White House” ~ Photo of Sam in front of the White House.

Bottom Left Corner

Bottom left: Posted later in the year: “It just hit me today how much I miss DC, the White House, and everyone it it.” ~ photo of the White House

Last, the center photo.

Center Image

This center image is cut into the shape of an ellipse (an interesting feat accomplished with the use of a compass, two pins and a string.)  This ellipse shape is created with the same scale as the ellipse just south of the White House in President’s Park. A little side note: the Oval Office is also an ellipse!

In math, there are two focus points on an ellipse. Any point on the outer edge of the shape to those two focus points will always be equal. Meaning, no matter where you stand on the outer ellipse, the paths to each focus point will add up to the same outcome. This is a pattern that is seen repeatedly in the universe – atoms circle their nucleus and planets circle the sun all in ellipses.

I feel like that sentiment brings us full circle (or full ellipse) back to “There are a lot of roads to get where you’re going.” These four amazing people came from their respective homes, traveled together for one short summer, then continued on their way – most immediately, one to Yale Law School, one to Morgan State University, one to a more permanent position with the First Lady, and one to the University of Wisconsin’s Law School. Each a different road, a different point on the outer edge of the ellipse, but all with a focused intention of serving us – their communities large and small – with a deeper understanding of the issues to address, permission to have fun, and a new understanding of what it means to serve.

This is a mixed-media piece mounted on poster board with maps, embroidery thread, acid-free photographs, ink, found objects, Tyvek paper. Original is 24×30″. 

Completed July 2016.


One Comment on “There Are a Lot of Roads to Get Where You’re Going

  1. Good morning Ellen!

    I loved reading this–just loved it! What a wonderful and loving artwork for your nephew.

    The one that you and Cheryl created for Mac and me is hanging right at the front door as you walk into our new house.

    I am excitedly working on a new series here in my basement studio. Who knew that I needed this seriously large space in order to move on to my own next creative expression?

    Xoxo Regina

    Sent from my iPad



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Regina Leffers McCaleb, Ph.D.

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