Thirteen students from Southeast Washington’s Anacostia High School – one of the city’s most challenged public schools – have had a day they’ll never forget.
They were told a “celebrity” would be visiting today, but not who. When those guys with the wires coming out of their ears began prowling the halls, they might have had a clue. But it wasn’t until Michelle Obama entered the room that the students – 10 girls, 3 boys, all juniors or seniors, all African-American – saw their surprise visitor. The students gasped when she walked in.
Like a basketball coach, Mrs. O patted some knees as she worked her way around the semi-circle, then when she reached the end of the line, the hugs started.
Her message of the day: set goals, achieve your dreams.
Actually, her very first message to the students was, “Ignore those people!” She was referring to the White House press pool, yours truly included.
“So do I need to introduce myself?” she asked. A few piped up. Of course they knew who she was. But she told them she’s Michelle Obama and First Lady of the United States anyway. “I think that’s cool!” one girl said.
Mrs. Obama’s visit was part of a Women’s History Month event, in which the White House invited 21 female luminaries from all over the country – including Alicia Keys, Mae Jemison, Sheryl Crow, and Dominique Dawes – and sent them out to visit with students, mostly girls, at schools in DC and the suburbs.
Obama herself was the only VIP at Anacostia High on Thursday, but that was enough for the star-struck high-schoolers. She explained her working-class background on the South Side of Chicago, and how she grew up right near the University of Chicago but never stepped inside.
It was a fancy college, and it didn't have anything to do with me,” she said.
Maybe kids around here feel that way about the White House, she suggested. “You know, you're living 10 minutes away from the power of this nation and the world -- the White House, the Capitol, all those buildings,” she said. “I know when I would come to visit, I would wonder what's going on in there.
“And I wanted to be a part of opening the doors and taking off the veil and saying, this is what's going on there. And one of the best ways -- or most fun ways for me to do that is to come and see you all, and do as much as I can, and eventually have you guys come see me in the White House -- one of these days, soon.”
She said Barack wished he could be there today, too, but he was away on business in California. “He was like, I want to do what you're doing,” said Mrs. O. “But I have the more fun job than he does.”
She invited questions. And ask they did – about life in the White House, her clothes, her kids, how she got to where she is.
Student: “Do you all still live like normal?”
Mrs. O: “You know, as normal as it can be, living in the White House with Secret Service.”
Student: “Why didn't they [the girls] come?
Mrs. O: “Because they're at school. One's in school and one's doing a service project, so they're busy today. And we try not to pull them out of their routines. You know, even when we're doing something special, at least my mother taught me that there was nothing more important than going to school and going on time, and doing your homework.”
That was the real point of Obama’s visit – to drill into these teens that there’s nothing more important than keeping the routine going, getting up on time, getting to school on time, getting the homework done. And having goals. And working toward them. And not letting anyone – your friends, your teachers – that you’re capable of achieving.
Obama said the school had been asked to select kids who show promise but who aren’t necessarily the stars. Give us some kids who have overcome something.
Student: “My name is Truddie Hawkins. I admire you.”
Obama engaged the boy sitting to her left, Marvin Grant Tucker, in conversation but he seemed painfully shy and would not look at her.
Another boy, Timothy Lowery, sitting on one end of the semi-circle, was less shy. He told her he’s on the basketball team, but has a knee injury. One girl said, with awe, “the president’s wife knows about your knee!”
Student: “What do you do for fun?
Mrs. O: “We do -- fun is different when you have kids. It's all kids stuff. It's like -- I haven't been to a grown-up movie in I don't know how long.”
Student: “It's like you can't -- (inaudible) -- you've got to be followed by the Secret Service and …”
Mrs. O: “Well, they're pretty good, you know. You know, they bring a lot of commotion, but they're all good, good folks, and they try to make it so that we can do whatever it is that we want to do. “
Student: “You do your own makeup every day?”
Mrs. O: “I didn't today because it was special. (Laughter.) But most of the time I do.”
Student: “You pick your own clothes out?”
Mrs. O: “I do.” (Laughter.)
Student: “What you got on today?”
Student: “That's cute.”
Mrs. O: “This is just a little jacket, jacket and pants, nothing special –“
Her “what, this old thing?” gesture just didn’t wash. Of course, she looked fabulous – black jacket, with skinny black belt and big black flower up to one side. Black skinny pants. Black patent flats. Hair down.
Student: “How did you get to where you are now?”
Mrs. O: “You know, what I want you all to know is that -- and I say this a lot -- that there is no magic to being here, you know. …”
“But what I want people to know is that I -- my parents were working-class people. My father was a city worker. My mother stayed at home until I went to high school. I have an older brother. We didn't have a lot of money. We lived on the South Side of Chicago. I lived in the same house that my mother still lives in now, although she's with us, but same -- my same bedroom with the same stuff on the wall. I went to a public school in Chicago. I went to one of the better public schools, but my parents couldn't afford to send me to, you know, private schools.
“And if I were to point to anything that was different, it was the fact that I had somebody around me who helped me understand early on that hard work, discipline and the choices that I made in life were really the only things that defined me. And I had a mother, for example, parents who told me, you don't worry about what anybody else thinks about you. “
Obama also told them not to worry about figuring out right away what they want to be for the rest of their lives. She thought she wanted to be a lawyer, and went to law school right out of college. But then she decided she’d rather do community work, and so she changed careers.
“Now everything is open for you guys,” she told them. “You're just in high school. There's no decisions or things that you've done that change your life forever for the good or for the bad, right? If you've made some bad choices now, you can completely correct it. If you made great choices, you might trip a little bit, but this doesn't -- this period right here doesn't define you, right, completely. Right?”
After about 20 minutes of conversation, the press pool was kicked out, as promised, and the conversation continued. We’re told the kids got off their chairs and gathered in close -- 13 high-schoolers from Anacostia, a Washington, DC neighborhood known more for poverty and crime than White House motorcades. But on this day in Anacostia, one of the most famous women in the world came to tell some of its kids that they can make it.