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Friday, May 11, 2012 - Page updated at 10:00 p.m.

Teacher's 'freakishly fantastic' moment: introducing Obama

By Lynda V. Mapes
Seattle Times staff reporter

When the call came, Suzanne Black, a public schoolteacher, at first didn't believe it: Would she be willing to introduce the president at the Paramount Theatre?

"When I told my husband, he was like, 'The president of what? You mean, THE president?' " Black said.

The president indeed, and for Black, it was a chance not only to welcome Obama to Seattle, but personally thank the man who put her life back on track.

For Black, the health-care plan passed by Congress at Obama's insistence isn't an abstraction or some distant political debate. It's the only reason she can continue to get coverage for the chemotherapy treatments that are keeping cancer at bay.

Black was 47 when she was diagnosed in March 2005 with stage IV ovarian cancer. Five years later, she received a four-sentence letter from her insurance company informing her she had exhausted three-quarters of her lifetime benefit limit.

"I would have to battle cancer and figure out how to pay for the medicines keeping me alive," Black said. "How does anyone do that?"

But the legislation passed by Congress banned insurers from imposing such lifetime limits on coverage.

"Health reform, Obamacare — whatever you want to call it, it represents a chance at life," she said, practicing on the phone the speech she planned to give on stage.

But first, she would need something suitable to wear for her big moment.

"I believe in Thoreau's saying, 'Beware all enterprises that require new clothes,' but I needed something more than my usual khakis," Black said.

So it was off to Nordstrom for a little 911 shopping trip.

"I literally walked in and just said, 'Help.' "

The first number suggested by a sales associate, a little black skirt with a bow, was a nonstarter. "I am a science teacher. I would spill acid on it or something." A hot-pink top? No way. But black pants, purple blouse and tan jacket were just fine.

Next came the problem of trying to sleep for all the excitement after getting the call on Monday.

"Teachers are hardly ever speechless, but when I got that call, I was just completely at a loss for words," Black said. "I can see why they don't tell you until a few days before; it totally derails your world. It is freakishly fantastic."

Afterward, Black was still incandescent in her excitement. "He is so down to Earth," she said in an interview just after the president's speech. "I have so much respect for him."

Black said she was very nervous before going on stage, but right before her big moment, "I felt this kind of supernatural calm." Her introduction went off flawlessly.

She said it was fascinating to watch all the backstage preparation with the president's entourage. "It was just like 'West Wing,' " Black said.

She credits her big moment with the president to one of her students, a political activist, who wrote about Black's battle with cancer in a community newspaper, and then reached out to Obama's campaign to talk her up.

"I was so proud of her," said the student, Austin Wright-Pettibone, 18, after Obama's speech. "She was so eloquent. She set the tone."

As a biology teacher at Inglemoor High School in the Northshore district, meeting the president is about the only thing that could keep her out of the classroom, Black said. "To me teaching biology is more than what I do, it's what I am."

She says she has figured out how to return the favor to her students, for the light they bring into her life. She's going to bring Obama's handshake right into the classroom the next day.

"After he shakes my hand, I am not going to wash it," she said of Obama. "I may even put it in a plastic bag."

Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or lmapes@seattletimes.com

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