News & Politics

Jeff Bezos Surprised High School Students in DC Monday. Most Didn’t Know Who He Was.

The Amazon mogul made an unannounced appearance at Dunbar High School.

Jeff Bezos. Photograph by Evy Mages

Jeff Bezos gave a new meaning to the concept of “substitute teacher.”

Things were busy in Ms. Ramona Hutchin‘s B-period Computer Applications 1 class in Room 384, where she presided over about fifteen students. The course is offered in the engineering program at Dunbar High School, made possible in part by the Amazon Future Engineer program—and the class was hosting a public event highlighting the company’s involvement. Three Amazon programmers, who had taken the day off to come mentor the students, roamed the classroom, fielding questions from curious high school juniors.

Then there was a knock on the window.

“I was like, who else is here?” Hutchins recalled. Suddenly, Bezos walked into the classroom grinning. “We all stopped,” Hutchins said. “We froze.”

The appearance by Bezos was a surprise, according to Amazon employees who organized the event.

But the students didn’t immediately react to richest man on the planet; Hutchins estimated only about three of her students recognized Bezos. They got the idea quickly, though, when Hutchins cried out with excitement. “I know I screamed,” Hutchins said, laughing. “A thousand questions went through my mind. Should I shake his hand? Should I hug him? I told him, ‘I’m from New Orleans—I’m going in for the hug!'”

Bezos spoke with the students for about five minutes. At one point, he made a crack about a student’s vague answer, Hutchins said, relaying a story about his own daughter and calling teenagers masters of vagueness. At another juncture, Bezos listened patiently while a student explained his project, then praised the junior for a compelling presentation. The moment was an educator’s dream. “I was very proud as his teacher,” Hutchins laughed. “I was like, ‘Yes! Larry!‘” In class, Bezos called Hutchins “a champion.”

Hutchins, for her part, described Bezos as “down to earth and so personable.” She hoped the episode would gin up more interest for the course, and the engineering course more broadly. Amazon’s funding is what allows the students entry in an online course that teaches Python, among other coding languages. She also noted the disparities in access to computer science education, and that her class were “100 percent minority students.”

After the event, Hutchins stopped by nearby Republic Cantina for lunch—where she ran into a table of six Amazon employees gaggling after the event. Hutchins pulled up a high chair, as Jill Kerr, Amazon’s Communications Manager, asked her about the day.

“We had an awesome time with your kids,” Kerr said. “Do you think they had fun today?”

Hutchins shot them a look, and the table laughed.

Visiting billionaires aside, Hutchins had cautioned her students that this would still be a normal week: The students’ weekly assignments, she said sternly, were still due on Sunday.

Benjamin Wofford
Staff Writer

Benjamin Wofford is a contributing editor at Washingtonian.