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WHITEFISH - A formal meeting with the president of the United States is an exhilarating experience, as Montana teacher of the year Robin Zeal of Whitefish can attest.

"I felt like Cinderella," Zeal said. "We had a wonderful experience (in Washington, D.C.,) and we did a lot of interesting things. But I was very nervous meeting President Bush."

Zeal was one of 56 teachers from across the country honored recently as Teachers of the Year. Part of that honor involved a trip to Washington, D.C., to see the sights and to meet President George W. Bush.

Meeting the president was the most exciting - and the most nerve-racking, Zeal said.

"First, all our IDs were checked by the Secret Service when we entered the West Wing. Then we went past a very serious looking military guard," Zeal said. "We first met Secretary of Education Rod Paige, then we waited in the Roosevelt Room, which is next to the Oval Office. We were then taken in one by one to meet the president from there.

"They told us some of the unique things to look for in the Oval Office but as I stood in the doorway I was very nervous and I really didn't see anything but the president. I don't remember a single thing about what the Oval Office looked like."

She said she chatted with the president for a few seconds, turned around and had her picture taken and it was over.

"President Bush is warm and friendly," Zeal said. "He came over and shook my hand, then we talked about his trip to Billings and he talked about his friend Marc Racicot. I have to say that President Bush looks much younger in person than he does on television."

The teachers represented each of the 50 states, four territories, the Department of Defense and Washington, D.C. The entire White House event was scheduled for 30 minutes so there was no time to dawdle. In fact, they even rehearsed the turn for the photo, according to Zeal.

"We turned around and our picture was taken then I went out the door into the Rose Garden," Zeal said. "I thought that was it, but then I noticed another military guard and a marine quartet playing. It was a beautiful spring day and we were seated."

Finally, Bush joined the group outside, made a few remarks and the teachers received their awards.

"And that was the end of the visit with the president," Zeal said.

The official events ended the following Wednesday night with a formal reception and dinner arranged by the Council of Chief State School Officers and Scholastic Inc., the two groups that sponsored the Washington visit. Teachers were responsible for their own travel expenses, but Zeal's was covered by the Montana Professional Teaching Foundation.

Zeal, a Title I reading specialist at Muldown Elementary School in Whitefish, was especially interested in Bush's comments about Title I.

"The president wants education for everyone and he wants to keep Title I funding like it is," Zeal said. "He wants to add funding to the program for outside tutoring to insure that all students have the means to succeed."

Paul Overlie is a Whitefish Pilot reporter.

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