An Eighth Grader's Plea Rebuild My School!

updated 03/16/2009 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 03/16/2009 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Huddled inside the J.V. Martin Junior High gym for a Feb. 17 school assembly, Ty'Sheoma Bethea couldn't stop shivering. Which is no surprise. The gym has no heat or air-conditioning, so it's freezing in winter and broiling in summer. It's even worse when it rains and water streams in through holes in the ceiling. But for all that, Ty'Sheoma, 14, swells with school pride; once, playing guard for the girls' basketball team, she bristled when visiting opponents mocked the Dillon, S.C., junior high as "the worst school ever." So when principal Amanda Burnette mentioned President Barack Obama's economic stimulus plan at the assembly, Ty'Sheoma vowed to take action. "I decided to write a letter about my school conditions," says the eighth grader, who had to borrow 42 cents from the principal for a stamp. "I knew I could make a difference."

She certainly made an impression. Just one week later Ty'Sheoma found herself seated beside First Lady Michelle Obama as the President himself repeated her words in his Feb. 24 address to Congress. "We are not quitters," he said, quoting Ty'Sheoma. He gestured to her in the gallery, where the First Lady helped her to her feet as the nation's lawmakers greeted her with a standing ovation. For Ty'Sheoma and mom Dina Leach, who accompanied her to Washington, D.C., the moment was unforgettable: "It was so exciting to meet [the President and First Lady]," Ty'Sheoma says. "They told me I inspired them."

The President had not met Ty'Sheoma before but was familiar with her plight. He had visited the 113-year-old school in August 2007 on his campaign and was, recalls principal Burnette, "shocked kids were going to gym class in 100° heat." But that's just one challenge facing J.V. Martin students. The auditorium was condemned by the fire marshal; teachers use rugs to plug holes in the portable-classroom floors; and lessons come to a halt daily when trains roar by 20 yards away, rattling the flimsy walls. "We need better," says James Moultrie, Ty'Sheoma's social studies teacher. Adds classmate Na-Mesha Roberts: "We get wet because there are holes in the walls where wind and water blow through. We deserve a new school."

Those were the sentiments Ty'Sheoma captured in her letter, which she tapped out in two hours on a computer in the public library and which found its way to the President after Burnette repeatedly phoned the White House press office. "We are just students," Ty'Sheoma wrote, "trying to become lawyers, doctors, congress men [sic] like yourself and one day president."

Already, she's a celebrity in Dillon, a downtrodden rural town: Her school held a celebration in her honor, and the local McDonald's gave her a $500 college scholarship and offered a month of free meals. And while no one knows exactly when, or even if, help will arrive, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan says, "I am going to work very, very hard to help." Ty'Sheoma has no doubts. "I believe there will be a new school," says the oldest of four, who shares a bedroom in her trailer home with her siblings—Tyron, 12, Zi'Moria, 10, and Jamaica, 9. Her resolve is no surprise to her mom. "When Ty'Sheoma is determined to do something," says Dina, a welder for an ambulance company, "she is going to do it."

And fixing her school isn't her only plan. An honor-roll student who puts her certificates of achievement (perfect attendance, student of the week, best school spirit) in color-coded files, she has a simple recipe for success: "At home, I study," she says. "When I go to school, I learn." And learning is a must, given her career goal. "I want to be the first lady President," she says. "If I try hard and keep my head up, I don't think it will be a difficult task."

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