After serving as the First Lady for eight years, Michelle Obama reflects on her life, her time in the White House, and the future of America.
Michelle grew up in the 1960s on the South Side of Chicago with her parents and her brother, Craig. Her parents rented an apartment on the second floor of her great-aunt and uncle’s bungalow. When she was a child, her father was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
Michelle’s great-aunt was a piano teacher, and Michelle started learning how to play when she was four years old. At her first big piano recital, she wasn’t used to a big, fancy piano and she froze. Fortunately, her aunt came on stage and pointed her in the right direction.
She grew up in a middle-class and racially mixed neighbourhood. When she was in second grade, she had a particularly bad teacher and complained to her mother. After a few tests, she got reinstalled permanently into an orderly third-grade class.
Slowly, many of her neighbours began to move to the suburbs. One day, her family went to visit an old neighbour at their new home. When they returned to their car, there was a scratch along the side of her father’s beloved Buick. His car had been keyed.
As Michelle grew up, she became more social. Most Sunday afternoons, she would drive with her family to eat dinner with her dad’s parents and his three youngest siblings.
One day, her cousin asked her, “how come you talk like a white girl?” She was raised strictly by her parents to speak proper diction. This was the first time Michelle felt like she didn’t fit in.
Since childhood, Michelle understood the importance of keeping a close and high-spirited council of girlfriends. When she was in school, she joined Bryn Mawr’s gifted and talented program and worked hard to stay at the top of her class. Her parents raised her and her brother to be autonomous thinkers, and by the time she was fourteen, she thought of herself as half a grown-up anyway.
She went through the normal stages of puberty – getting her period, crushing on boys, and separating herself from her parents. Her mother was always a stay-at-home mom, but around the time Michelle started high school, she went back to work as an executive assistant at a bank.
Michelle tested into Chicago’s first magnet high school and she spent her first month of high school wondering Am I good enough? She studied hard, and when her grades turned out well, her confidence grew.
Although her parents were financially stretched thin due to paying her brother’s college tuition, they still sent Michelle on an optional school trip to Paris.
During her senior year, Michelle visited her school’s guidance counsellor, who bluntly told her that she “didn’t think she was Princeton material.” But she was determined and used the counsellor’s disbelief as fuel. And a few months later, she got admitted to Princeton.
Michelle had a boyfriend for her last year of high school, and when she went to Princeton, they had to decide what to do next. As soon as she arrived at school, she told him that she didn’t think it would work out.
Princeton was very white and male. Black students made up less than 9 percent of her freshman class. But she learned to adapt. It was doable, but it took a lot of energy and an extra level of confidence. The biggest lesson she learned during her time at school was that there are many ways to be.
Growing up, Michelle learned to be hard-edged and practical about both time and money. When it was time to decide the next step, Michelle took the LSAT and applied to the best law schools in the country. She ended up at Harvard Law School and after graduation, got a job at a law firm in Chicago called Sidley & Austin.
One day, a senior partner asked her if she could mentor an incoming summer associate – Barack Obama. Her job was to make sure he was happy in the job, that he had someone to come to if he needed advice, and that he felt connected to the larger team. They quickly became friends, and months later, Barack asked her on a date. At first she said no, worrying about her job, but eventually, she couldn’t fight it any longer.
Although they only had a month together before Barack had to go back to law school, they had enough time to fall deeply in love with each other. When Barack went back to school, they spoke as often as they could manage, and their feelings remained steady and reliable.
Michelle joined Barack in Hawaii that Christmas and met his half-sister, his grandparents, and his mother. They spent the time there discussing what kind of house they’d want to live in someday and what kind of parents they wanted to be.
The next summer, on Barack’s break from school, he moved into her apartment, one that she still shared with her parents. During this time, Michelle realized that she didn’t like being a lawyer anymore. She also realized that Barack’s intellect and ambition could possibly swallow hers. She decided to look for a new job.
Meanwhile, her father’s health was deteriorating. Eventually, the family convinced him to see a doctor, and the results were grim. Soon after, he had a heart attack and passed away.
Barack finished law school and moved back to Chicago. One night, at a fancy restaurant, Barack slipped a ring box onto a dessert plate and asked Michelle to marry him.
Barack and Michelle got married on a sunny Saturday in October of 1992 surrounded by lots of family and love. Shortly after, Barack began working at Project VOTE! which spearheaded efforts to register new voters in states where minority turnout was traditionally low. Michelle began a new job as an executive director for an organization called Public Allies which recruited talented young people, gave them training and placed them in a paid ten-month apprentice position inside community organizations and public agencies.
In 1996, Barack was elected to the Illinois Senate, and Michelle left Public Allies to become the associate dean at the University of Chicago. Soon after, they began trying to get pregnant. After months of trying and one devastating miscarriage, they moved to in vitro fertilization. About eight weeks later, they were pregnant, and on July 4th, 1998, Malia Ann Obama was born.
A few years later, on June 10th, 2001, their second girl, Natasha Marian Obama, was born. Michelle took on a job as an executive director for community affairs and Barack continued teaching and legislating.
Then Barack ran and was elected to the US Senate. He began spending most of his time in DC and Michelle stuck to her routine in Chicago. Immediately, people began questioning Barack’s intention to run for president. Michelle wanted him home with the family; the country wanted him in the White House. Ultimately, she agreed to let him run, although deep down she didn’t think he could win.
Campaigning was stressful and Barack travelled all over the country to get his name out. Michelle began solo campaigning too – speaking in bookstores, union halls, front porches and parks. Winning the Iowa caucus gave everybody hope for the upcoming election.
The campaigning continued, and slowly, they learned to live their lives more publicly. Michelle had to be careful with every word she spoke otherwise the press could spin it against her and Barack. Michelle became emotionally worn out. She was exhausted. In the final weeks of the campaign, Michelle got a scheduler, a personal aide, and a communications specialist to sharpen her message and presentation.
On Election Day, Michelle and Barack went to the polls early with Sasha and Malia. They watched the election returns with a small group of friends and family and at exactly ten o’clock, the networks announced that Barack Obama would become the forty-fourth president of the United States.
There is no handbook for incoming First Ladies of the United States. And as the only African American First Lady to set foot in the White House, things felt different for Michelle.
As the first African American family in the White House, they were being viewed as representatives of their race. Any error or lapse in judgment would be magnified. So they were careful.
They chose a school for their daughters, moved into the White House, and made DC feel like home. Life was more orderly with Barack as president than it was when he was out campaigning for higher office. Although he was busy all of the time, he always made time for family dinners.
Michelle began to garden, hoping it would spark a public conversation about nutrition and challenge the corporations in the food and beverage industry. With the help of a local fifth-grade class, Michelle planted fruits and vegetables and herbs.
One night, Barack took Michelle on a nice date to New York City to have dinner and see a play. It was the first night off they had in months, maybe even years. However, the Republicans criticized Barack for taking a night off and Michelle felt guilty about all of the extra work it meant for the White House staff.
Meanwhile, Michelle’s garden was growing beautifully. They ate their own fruits and vegetables at dinner in the White House and donated plenty of food to a local nonprofit that served the homeless.
Michelle decided to focus on helping children think differently about food and exercise from an early age so they could grow into healthy adults. Her initiative, Let’s Move! aimed to end the childhood obesity epidemic within a generation.
They teamed up with different foundations and food suppliers to install six thousand salad bars in school cafeterias. Congress passed a bill to expand children’s access to healthy, high-quality food in public schools and increase the reimbursement rate for federally subsidized meals.
She also started a leadership and mentoring program for sophomore and junior girls in the DC area. They met once a month for informal chats, field trips, and sessions on things like financial literacy and how to choose a career.
Michelle was rigorous about her friendships. She could tell who were her true friends and who was trying to befriend her with an agenda in mind. Every few months, she invited her closest friends to Camp David for a weekend to connect and recharge.
Time in the White House was packed and soon it was time to campaign for Barack’s reelection. Again, Barack was elected.
Five weeks later, a gunman walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut and started killing children. Gun violence was becoming more frequent in America and Michelle pushed back against the narrative that being a black urban kid in America meant failure.
Michelle loved giving commencement speeches, and her message was always the same. She knew invisibility – and she knew it was possible to overcome it.
Before Michelle left the White House, she expanded her garden, adding stone pathways and wooden benches and room for more plants. She reflected on everything that had been accomplished during the previous eight years – forty-five million kids were eating healthier breakfasts and lunches; more than twenty-eight hundred Peace Crops volunteers were trained to implement programs for girls internationally; twenty million more people had health insurance.
During her time as First Lady, Michelle experienced progress, compassion and the joy of watching the invisible find some light. Now, she is at a new beginning, a new phase of life. She has no intention of running for office, ever.
She wants people to invite one another in. She wants us to embrace the ways we are the same. There is power in allowing yourself to be known and heard, in owning your unique story, in using your authentic voice. There is grace in being willing to know and hear others. And that is how we become.
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