Natalia Mbadu wanted to hug Maine’s new governor, but she was afraid she would be tackled by guards if she tried. So Natalia was surprised when Janet Mills wrapped her arms around her and her classmate Shy Paca when they finished their performance of the pop song “Girl on Fire” by Alicia Keys at Wednesday’s inauguration ceremony.

“She hugged us many times,” Shy, 11, said.

“She said, ‘You guys are on fire,’ ” Natalia, 10, added.

The two fifth-graders from Reiche Elementary School in Portland made headlines last week for their song, which got the crowd of several thousand on its feet. Videos of their performance with Mills and Maine Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Leigh Saufley – the first woman to be elected the state’s governor and the first to lead its top court, respectively – beaming and clapping in the background have circulated on the Internet. The Boys and Girls Club of Southern Maine, which helped arrange their appearance at the inauguration, fielded TV and radio interview requests for the two girls. A stranger recognized them on the street outside their school and ran down the sidewalk to congratulate them. 

“I thought we were just going to perform and people would forget about it,” Natalia said. 

The girls met last year, when Shy was a new fourth-grader at Reiche. She had recently moved to the United States from Namibia. Natalia knew that experience because she came to the United States from Angola three years ago. She said she was walking by the music room at the Boys and Girls Club location in Portland and liked the new girl’s hair, which was then styled with braids and colorful beads. Then when she heard Shy’s voice, she wanted to sing with her. They became friends, and both girls have since participated in a singing group at the club called the Skyrockets. 


Bob Clark, the CEO of the Boys and Girls Club of Southern Maine, said Shy was practicing the Keys hit when Mills first visited the Portland location over the summer. The Maine Alliance of Boys and Girls Clubs invited all the gubernatorial candidates to tour a clubhouse in the state during the campaign, and as Mills walked past the music room in Portland, the teacher stuck his head out into the hallway.

“He said, you might want to listen to this girl sing,” Clark said.

Mills remembered the performance and invited Shy to sing at her inauguration. So on Wednesday, 15 kids from Boys and Girls Clubs around the state served as greeters. High school student Alain Igirneza, who also visits the Portland clubhouse, sang the national anthem. Then Shy and Natalia took the stage. 

In an interview Friday, the girls said they did not really understand the significance of the event before they arrived in Augusta on Wednesday. Wearing their bright blue jackets from the Boys and Girls Club, they stood silently but sent encouraging text messages back and forth, like, “You ready to rock?” They didn’t look at each other on stage for fear that they would burst into nervous laughter. They were wowed by the lights, the cameras and the thousands of guests.

“It was like four of our school gyms,” Natalia said.

They were so engrossed in their performance that they didn’t realize Mills stood up behind them during the first chorus. They were surprised to see the crowd stand and cheer as they sang, and it wasn’t until they watched the video later that they realized the governor was exuberantly mouthing the words and dancing behind them. 


Those lyrics were still stuck in their heads two days later. They plan to sing together again at the school talent show. They haven’t picked a song yet, but both are fans of Demi Lovato. Now that they’ve met the governor, the girls said they hope she works to help life in the Gulf of Maine and prevent people from getting sick with diseases like the flu. As they went to eat lunch at school Friday, Shy turned to Natalia and said, “You’re awesome.”

“You, too,” Natalia replied.

“You, too,” Shy repeated. 

“You, too,” Natalia said, and they might have continued if their words hadn’t dissolved into giggles.

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