BREWER, Maine — Former first lady Barbara Bush and Maine first lady Ann LePage appeared larger than life on a screen as they video-chatted Monday afternoon with third- and fourth-grade students at Brewer Community School.
Then the conference using Skype had a “technical problem” and it looked as though the online chat was about to end. But all of a sudden the screen lifted and behind it were Bush and LePage — live and in person.
Third-grade teacher Cherrie MacInnes did a little dance.
“I had no idea,” said the longtime teacher, who organized the Web-based “visit” with the first ladies, both of whom had visited her students in the past on the Internet.
“I was so embarrassed the technology wasn’t working,” MacInnes said. “In my whole life, I don’t think I’ve ever been surprised like this.”
Before the surprise visitors were unveiled, Principal Bill Leithiser asked the students if they knew the two ladies up on the big screen.
“Yes,” the kids said, virtually in unison.
There were “oohs” and “ahhs” when the students saw Bush’s small white dog, Mini-me, sitting on her lap.
“We really do hope you come to visit someday,” the principal hinted.
“That would be great,” Bush responded.
“Maybe someday we will,” LePage said from the screen.
Shortly after Superintendent Daniel Lee spoke to the screen and welcomed the two first ladies to Brewer, the computer’s online connection was lost, but MacInnes reassured the students it was just a bump in the road.
“This is technology,” she said.
As the screen lifted, one student asked, “What is going on?” He and the children around him broke into smiles when they saw Bush and LePage sitting at a small table on the stage at the school’s performing arts center.
After her celebratory dance, MacInnes went up onstage and gave both women a hug and patted Mini-Me.
“We really fooled you,” Bush said to the teacher, who was all smiles.
“Did you guys know?” MacInnes asked the students.
“No,” they answered.
“Did you know we had Secret Service members in the school?” the teacher asked.
“Ooh,” the students said in unison, looking around for the bodyguards.
“Do you know how lucky you are to have a great third-grade teacher who plans all this fun stuff?” Bush asked, referring to MacInnes.
Other teachers and school board members in attendance gave Bush, who summers in Kennebunkport, and LePage a standing ovation when the screen lifted.
Afterward, the students gave the visiting dignitaries a presentation about the Community of Caring program, which started in 1982 and emphasizes the core values of community, family, respect, responsibility and trust. Students of teachers Deanna Bryant, Carol Alley, Amy Reif, Rebecca Vigue and MacInnes each took one of the core values and spelled out the word with letters they held up, and read a statement together about the subject.
For example, “Trust means you can count on us,” third-grade students from Vigue’s class said.
After the presentation, students asked the first ladies several questions, including where they were born, what their favorite book was in third grade, their favorite part of being a first lady, their favorite causes, their favorite part about Maine, and what advice they had for young Americans.
“I’ll give you the advice my husband gives,” Bush said, referring to George H.W. Bush, the 41st president, who served from 1989 to 1993. “Do something for other people.”
Going to visit someone who is a shut-in and feeding the needy were two of Bush’s suggestions.
“Help someone else, not just yourself,” the 87-year-old great-grandmother told the youngsters.
Maine’s first lady stressed the importance of literacy, which is also one of Bush’s causes.
“Read, read and read some more,” LePage advised the students.
One student named Tyler didn’t have a question — just a statement.
“It’s been a great honor to see you,” he told the guests, drawing a round of applause from those around him.
The video linkup is nothing new for MacInnes, who in 2010 took her class on a Web-based “field trip” to Minnesota to visit a Brewer student who had moved there. That visit blossomed into “Chatting Across the USA,” a program connecting classrooms all over the nation and world through the Internet.
The first year’s class visited all 50 states online. Last year’s class visited numerous states, chatted with several dignitaries and contacted pen pals in Arizona and Belarus, among other online field trips.
“It’s great that we have a teacher who is willing to pursue this kind of technological activity for [her] students,” Amanda Bost, Brewer School Committee chairwoman, said after the gathering ended. “Look what it leads to.”
The surprise visit ended Monday with Bush walking among the 8-, 9- and 10-year-olds with Mini-Me, who is half poodle and half Maltese, and allowing all who wanted to give her dog a pat. She told the students the dog got her name from the Austin Powers movies, which have a character by that name.
“People think I call her Mini-Me because we both have white hair — not true,” Bush said.