Faced with the prospect of the State of the Union address dominating the airwaves last Tuesday night, Daniel J. Cabrera planned to rent a movie.
The MIT graduate (S.B. 2001 in biology) never got to the video store. Instead, he wound up in the VIP gallery during the speech, a guest of First Lady Laura Bush.
"I had a smile on my face the entire night," said Cabrera, who is from Tampa, Fla.
When Cabrera, who is teaching science on a New Teacher Project fellowship, arrived at Jefferson Junior High School in Washington on Tuesday morning, a message from the White House was waiting for him.
He thought it was a practical joke. Then he returned the call.
"A gentleman explained that the New Teacher Project was started by the First Lady," Cabrera recalled. "He asked if I would like to be her guest at the State of the Union. I was shocked and could barely muster a yes.
"He then gave me all the info and said that I needed to go to the White House that evening for a reception. I was so excited that I called everyone I knew and e-mailed everyone else."
Cabrera got all dressed up and took the Metro to the White House to attend the 7 p.m. reception in the Diplomatic Room of the East Wing. He mingled and made small talk with New York Gov. George E. Pataki, W. Mitt Romney (president of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee for the winter Olympics), New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Washington Mayor Anthony A. Williams, among others.
With sirens blaring, they traveled to the Capitol in a presidential motorcade and were escorted to their seats for the speech. Cabrera sat next to Mrs. Bush's mother, Jenna Welch of Midland, Texas.
After the address, Cabrera and the other invited guests posed for pictures with President Bush ("I was paralyzed," Cabrera said). He chatted briefly with Mrs. Bush about teaching before the guests returned to the White House in a motorcade.
"The whole thing felt so surreal," said Cabrera, who took the Metro home at the end of the evening. "It was amazing. I don't think I was actually on TV but that didn't really matter."
Cabrera, who lived in New House as an undergraduate and was president of the MIT chapter of the Society for Hispanic Professional Engineers, is in the first year of a two-year teaching fellowship.
"I love every moment of it," said Cabrera, who plans to go on to medical school. "The job is tough but very fulfilling. The kids make it worthwhile. I have a lot of admiration for anyone involved in education. I was honored to be invited to represent the importance of new educational programs."
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 6, 2002.