Mr. Cardenas Goes to Washington

I still remember where I was when I heard the news. My dad told me to go upstairs immediately, which is never good. He told me cryptically that "the government was calling" about me. I got the rundown from my parents about what that actually meant. They were informed that Senator John Hickenlooper's office was looking for a Senate Page for the fall 2022 semester, and my now-former principal had recommended that I fill this slot.

The first place I turned? Wikipedia. "Page of the United States Senate" turned up some interesting results. I found that Pages had their own school and dorm, but their hours were long and the programs had received much scrutiny over the years. On top of everything else, Pages didn't have access to their phones during the entirety of their stay in Washington, D.C.

My parents told me I pretty much had to do this program, and I'm not sure why, but I obliged. I say no to just about everything, but this time felt different. Maybe in the back of my mind, I didn't think it would amount to anything. All I know is that I agreed.

That was a Sunday. The next few days were pretty hectic, because the turnaround was dangerously fast. In between some Britannica research on what the Senate actually does, I completed an application, got a letter of recommendation from the Denver Public Schools superintendent, and did an interview with Hickenlooper's chief of staff. By Wednesday, she had called me back saying that they wanted to offer me their Page slot. I thanked her and excitedly told my parents.

Not even a month later, I stood in line outside our dorm, Webster Hall. I was with the other 25 pages, all from different states and across the political spectrum. It was just my dad and I, and I felt a strong sense of unease being around so many people I didn't know and in an environment I had never been to.

By the time we were introduced to the Senate floor and toured the dorm, all the families had left, and the Pages were shuffled into the dayroom to meet each other formally. I sat in the back of the room, only speaking when spoken to and trying to avoid being front and center. Not only did I not know much about politics, but it took me a long time to open up in such an unfamiliar environment.

Thankfully, I was glad to see that it did indeed get better over time. Even though I didn't have much in common with any of my five roommates, we came to share a brotherly bond. And despite my work shift being quiet in our first days, we gradually came to show off our individual personalities, no matter how emotional, outrageous or overachieving we were.

The coolest moments started pretty much immediately. During our first month, Sonceria Ann Berry, the Secretary of the Senate, presented us each with pins to wear on our blue uniforms. We each got a photo with her and listened to her share her words of wisdom. The long hours weren't as bad as they were made to seem. I still remember the reactions people had upon seeing the more famous members of the Senate, but we quickly got used to working side by side with them

School was unlike any other education I had ever experienced - that's ignoring the fact that class typically started at 6 A.M. and never ran past 10 A.M.  All the teachers had their own quirks and interests. Our science teacher, Dr. Johnson, was always there to make sure we understood the material, and we had lots of laughs poking fun at our social studies teacher, Mr. Fiorill. The math teacher, Ms. Glines, had a vocabulary all her own that the rest of us Pages came to adopt. She laughed if we were ‘weak sauce’ or making ‘J.V. moves’. And I had never met anyone like the English teacher, Mrs. Owens, who had been with the Page Program since 2000. She had the most unapologetic and dry wit. But it was clear underneath it all, she loved her students.

In between school and work, the residence staff made sure that we had time to have fun and get to know each other. During our first weekend, we did a cool team building activity in Maryland. We enjoyed zip lining and being dropped from heights merely being held by a thread. Sometime during the first month, we were taken to a production of Hamilton at the Kennedy Center. Despite the fact that I am not a "musicals" person, I was so enthralled by the show that I found myself forgetting where I was during the intermission. In general, D.C. has lots of cool sights, many of which we were lucky to have toured, like the Library of Congress and Georgetown University. School field trips were fun too, like Mount Vernon and Williamsburg, even if we mostly resented the fact that we were still there to learn and would get quizzed on them.

Every Page got the chance to meet their Senator, and my meeting with Hickenlooper was nothing short of ethereal. I got to talk to him in his private office, and was glad to see that he remembered things like where I go to school when we spoke. I saw him a number of times throughout my service as a Page, and every time he made sure to say hi to me and ask how I was doing.

Our class of Pages was unique in that the Senate spent a lot of time in recess, meaning we had no work to do and had more flexible hours. Recess weeks were filled to the brim with field trips; places like the National Air and Space Museum and the Planet Word Museum. Perhaps my favorite field trip of the entire program was when we went to Hershey Park in Hershey, Pennsylvania on a Saturday. It was fun to be able to let loose with my new friends, snacking and riding roller coasters with a sense of freedom that I had never felt before. During recess weeks, I got to work alongside Hickenlooper's incredible staff in his office, sorting constituent mail or organizing team press releases. On one recess day, myself and two of my friends snuck to the House side to take pictures in front of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's office.

All the fun we had didn't mean that we weren't committed to our work. I worked past midnight a number of times.  The Capitol at 12 A.M. is truly a sight to behold. It's every bit as composed as you would think it is, and could easily get creepy. Such long hours likely would have deterred most people from doing it, but everyone was there for each other. The Senators were nice on the floor; even a simple thanks from Mitt Romney or Elizabeth Warren after holding the door for them was much appreciated. The littlest moments were always some of the most important to us. I can't even describe my excitement when Bernie Sanders passed by me and said hello. The Secretary even let us go to her Christmas office party in December!

By the last month of the program, things were starting to feel final, but that didn't mean anything was slowing down. We got to tour the White House and view all of its decorations in their glory. Perhaps the single most important day of the program (and what I would already consider one of the most important days of my life), was the swearing in of the new senators for the 118th Congress. On January 3rd, 2023, we saw the swearing in of the first ever female President Pro Tempore of the Senate, Patty Murray. And the actual President of the Senate was there - Vice President Kamala Harris. One of my friends got to serve her water, and she gave her an enthusiastic thanks. Needless to say, we all felt so much secondhand pride.

The program was beginning to wind down starting with final exams week. They weren't as bad as everyone thought they would be, and they lifted tons of stress from our shoulders. We got to just hang out at work for the final few times, each day more bittersweet than the last. On the last day of work, Senator Cory Booker, who was known to be a great friend of the pages, gave us a tribute and asked that our names be submitted to the Congressional Record. I tried to hold back my tears upon hearing his speech, but seeing my friends cry made me fail. He stayed in the lobby with us afterwards, happily taking pictures and signing our yearbooks.

January 27, 2023 was the hardest day. It meant that we were packed and ready to leave, saying goodbye to all of our teachers and favorite staffers. We traveled to the Capitol for the last time as a class for the closing ceremony. It was a moment of bittersweet peace - everyone got their awards and speeches were delivered on behalf of our class. Hickenlooper spoke, and I even got a shout out during his speech. Once it was over, I got to introduce my family to the other families as well as my always-cool supervisor, Toussaint. I gave them a special tour of the Senate side before we left.

As I wished my fellow Pages farewell, we put my things in the car and drove off. I stared at our dorm and then the Capitol until they were out of sight, and let a few tears roll down my face.

Even if I was sad to leave behind what had become my life, I would be forever grateful that this program opened the doors that it did for me. Though it's physically over now, I know that I will let the memories live on in my mind forever.