Ask Bay Area kids about Barack Obama, and they might invoke the memory of the Rev. Martin Luther King, whose civil rights legacy is honored the day before America's first black president takes office. But they might be just as likely to describe their soon-to-be president as a superhero who will bring peace, prosperity and equality to the world during a time of great distress. He has his own video game, after all.
"He has just a superman quality about him," said Javier Panzar, 17, a senior at Oakland's Skyline High School. "Now that he's in there, we can take a sigh of relief, like, 'It's OK. Barack Obama's there. He's here to save the day.'""
Many of those interviewed were quick to speak of the historical significance of Obama's inauguration. But when asked to describe the popular president-elect, they were more likely to talk about his youth, his values, his work as a community organizer, his family, or his stance against the Iraq war.
"Honestly, when I see him, I don't really think of race," Panzar said. "I think of what he stands for and what he says. I think the main thing with this younger generation is that race isn't the first thing we look at."
Chloe Killebrew, who attends Peralta Elementary School in North Oakland, made a similar point.
"You do think of him as an African-American man, but you also think of him as an important man with good ideas," she said. "I don't think it's going to matter as much to people anymore about what color your skin is, or where your family's from. It's going to matter whether you're a good person with good ideas."
Melissa Boss, a first-grade teacher at Richmond College Prep, a charter school in Richmond, said her students have been buzzing about Obama's election and inauguration for months. She said many of them compare Obama to King, not necessarily because of race, but because of the feeling of hope he brings.
"It's been the highlight of all of our social studies conversations," Boss said. "They're learning that they can be president, they can be teachers, they can be whatever they want to be."
Max French, like many of his classmates at Peralta Elementary School — and Obama, himself — comes from a mixed-race background, with a white mother and a black father. The 8-year-old said he sees himself as African-American, and that he sees Obama the same way.
"I think he's fulfilling Martin Luther King's dream of having black people as president," Max said during an interview in the principal's office.
Max's close friend Milo Kagiwada, sat nearby. "I wonder what it would be like if he was still alive," Milo said of King, after a pause.
Both boys were sure about one thing, though: Obama's presidency will change politics in America.
"He's the first African-American (president) there ever has been, and probably more black people will follow, just like Jackie Robinson in baseball," Milo said. "I think once another race starts becoming president, a lot of other races will start running for president. They'll think they have a shot, too."
Max agreed. "Black people were treated poorly through centuries, and now black people are even with white people, instead of being treated like dirt," he said.
At Eagle Peak Montessori Charter School in Walnut Creek, fourth- and fifth-graders who are learning about King's "I have a Dream" speech are creating a mural that illustrates their own dreams, which they plan to send to Obama.
"I think there should be more education and free health care because there are lots of homeless people and they need health care," said Luna Flynn, 10. "I think Obama is encouraging kids and people of all ages to start being who they are and reaching for their dreams."
Kierra Rieves, a 10-year-old Peralta student, said that for the first time she feels that as an African-American girl, she could one day run for president without fear that something "bad" would happen to her.
Kierra said it's inspiring to read about King's legacy, but that she's glad to be alive during an era that will be remembered for the inauguration of America's first black president. Now, she said, "we can experience history instead of just reading about it in books."
Staff Writers Kimberly Wetzel and Theresa Harrington contributed to this story. Reach Reporter Katy Murphy at 510-208-6424 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her Oakland schools blog and post comments at www.ibabuzz.com/education.