When US President Barack Obama officially visits Indonesia in June, classmates from his elementary school days are looking forward to seeing him again.
They may have known him for less than two years at school in the early ’70s, but Barry Soetoro, as Obama was then known, has become a source of inspiration and pride for many of his former classmates, said Rully Dasaad, one of those who befriended little Barry at Sekolah Dasar Negeri Besuki in Menteng.
“Barry affected our lives in a way,” Rully said. “He helped shape our personalities. I don’t know how to express it, but we are very proud to have been his classmates. Imagine, as US president, he is now the most powerful person on earth.”
Rully said this sentiment was shared by Widiyanto, Tita Tambunan, Donny Nyoman Moena, Deborah, Dewi Asmara, Ira Lesmana, Haryanni Barkah, Atik Isyanto and Yogi Dharma, along with many more of the “elite kids” from the school.
According to Rully, the school was where wealthy top government officials and bankers sent their children.
“Strangely, all the way from third and fourth grade with Barry to high school and up until now, we still meet and talk about nostalgic moments with him. We are all now in our late 40s, but we take time to gather, sometimes as many as 20 of us, to talk about practically anything as close friends,” said Rully, who works as a commercial photographer and technical surveillance instructor for elite security forces.
Widiyanto, who was Obama’s seatmate in third grade — back when students had to share a seat and desk built for two — said he was surprised when the US ambassador to Indonesia, Cameron Hume, invited him and Rully to his Surapati residence a day before Obama’s inauguration in January 2009 for a traditional slamatan, a ceremony for special occasions.
“Rully was in Bali at the time so he couldn’t come to the residence, but a friend represented him,” Widiyanto said. “In return, we, as Obama’s former classmates, invited the ambassador to SDN Besuki. Look at this photo. These are Obama’s classmates.”
Both Rully and Widiyanto recall that it was the more active and sporty kids at SDN Besuki who mostly played with Obama, though he was easygoing and friendly with everyone.
“From the first time that Barry was introduced, we wondered who he was — a chubby and taller-than-average kid with curly hair,” Rully said. “He was escorted by his father, who was in military uniform. Barry’s stepfather studied topography in Hawaii. Barry seemed like a very interesting kid and was all smiles.”
Widiyanto, who now runs his own express courier service company, said that Obama also joined the siaga , the Indonesian version of the US Cub Scouts. “Not very many people know this. Look at this photo, there’s Barry and me. President Obama has this photo too,” Widiyanto said, showing a never-before published photo of Obama as a boy wearing the distinctive siaga cap.
Asked whether they were still in touch with the president, both men said that since Obama assumed office, his executive secretary handled his correspondence. “The last exchange was in December last year with Deborah, who is now a manager at Unilever Indonesia,” Rully said.
Widiyanto said that even back then, Obama was already extremely smart. He remembers that Obama was left-handed and good at drawing. “I remember he sketched the characters in the Marvel and DC comics that Rully brought to school. Rully’s grandfather was one of Indonesia’s richest men at the time so he had access to imported comics,” Widiyanto said.
Rully remembers that Obama was shy when he first met him. “I befriended Barry. He moved from a Catholic school to SDN Besuki. [The school] was multiethnic. Islam was taught and prayers were held, attended by students of various religions.”
Rully, who said that Obama was affectionate toward his friends, continued to reminisce about the good old days.
“I remember that he was very straightforward. He didn’t like it if anyone cheated, whether playing marbles or petak gebok [Indonesian-style baseball].
“Barry was usually of a happy disposition, although sometimes children teased him and called him kuping pangsit [having ears shaped like fried dumplings]. He just laughed. I still remember he had an oval aluminum lunch box with him at school every day. Sometimes, he was brought to school on the back of a motorcycle if his mother had not yet gone off to work at the Indonesia-America Friendship Association [LIA].”
“Barry was very humble and sometimes just did what we asked him to do, such as eating Betawi glutinous rice or teasing the girls. We missed Barry when he had to leave in August 1971. Ask Ibu Karim [one of Obama’s teachers] or Pak Effendy [the class teacher] for their comments. They are witnesses who are still alive today.”
Rully said that after school, he and Obama often went to Taman Kodok, not far from SDN Besuki. “Barry never played at the park where a statue of him as a child was erected because at the time, what is now the park was a football stadium. I don’t know where people got the idea from. Oh well, you know, sometimes people make false claims to be in the [spotlight].”
Rully said he remained optimistic Obama would take time out to meet with his former classmates when he came to visit. “I hope his visit will not be all about official duties, but that he’ll be able to meet with us as well. Most of all, I hope he will come to Indonesia with his family,” Rully said.
He added that he expected President Obama’s speech in Indonesia to touch on the topic of unity between people of different faiths and beliefs. “He said in August last year that he would speak ‘at the right moment, at the right time and at the right place.’ I hope it will be in Indonesia.”