Michelle Obama at Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School: Sharing in the Inspiration
In her powerful memoir, Becoming, Michelle Obama describes a visit to the UK shortly after her husband, Barack, had become President of the United States in 2009. Part of this trip involved a visit to a school in Islington which proved to have as much of an effect on her as it did upon the pupils she spoke to. We were lucky enough to be in attendance when she returned to the school in 2018 to give another inspirational talk about her life, and the events and people who have helped her to become the person so many are inspired by.
When Michelle Obama visited London’s Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School in 2009 she stood in front of an audience of 200 pupils. Over 90% of them were from black or minority ethnic backgrounds, a fifth of them the children of immigrants or asylum seekers. As described in her new book, Becoming, she looked out at them she had a 'strange, quiet revelation':
'They were me, as I’d once been. And I was them as they could be.'
It was just the beginning of a long relationship with EGA, and also with Mulberry School in Tower Hamlets, that would see students invited to visit Oxford University and the White House; all of them empowered by seeing an African American woman who had moved all the way from the south side of Chicago to that famous building at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Nine years later, Michelle Obama returned to the same hall and spoke in front of another audience of young girls, eager to hear from a woman no longer travelling as the First Lady but emerging in her own right. A woman who has achieved, inspired and continues to lead by example with her actions - this return visit being just one of them.
Before she arrived on stage the pupils made public pledges on how they would strive to improve the community. Tolerance, acceptance, support, and a general desire to look beneath the surface were recurring themes; with each person who spoke loudly cheered by their classmates.
Three former pupils who had been in the audience in 2009 then took to the stage to share what had inspired them, all those years ago, and what progress they had each made in their education since. And it was they who would be putting the questions to Michelle Obama who then entered the room to thunderous applause.
The importance of education naturally came first, not only because it is only through knowledge that one can hope to influence and change the world for the better, but also because this room of pupils from minority ethnic backgrounds needed to hear from an intelligent black woman who had always been doubted, but succeeded anyway. 'The question was always how do I get my education when I’m surrounded by people who have different expectations from me?', Obama said. 'I was underestimated everywhere... The doubts in my head were all mine. I had to get over the question in my head: ‘Am I good enough?’... I overcame it with hard work and let my work speak for itself.'
Whether it was judgements based on the colour of her skin, or the fact she was a woman, or other ways people might be judging her, Obama persevered with that hard work but also benefitted from the mentorship of others, which proved to be another theme of the afternoon. Achievement for herself was only a limited success, even if it benefitted other people. Knowing that she was the product of the generosity of others she spoke of the importance of looking back to help those coming up. She even exhorted these young schoolgirls to think about who they might be inspiring already, pointing out that teenagers are fascinating to children just a little younger than them. Were there ways in which they could be a role model for them now, when 'everyone can influence someone?'And what was the best piece of advice that she had been given? "Finding my passion", she said. After all, the exam grades, job titles and career paths are just so many labels, they don’t necessarily say anything about who you are. This, it turns out, is why she moved away from being a lawyer and instead worked as an assistant to the Mayor of Chicago going on to support Chicago’s hospitals, university and non-profit organisations."The one simple question is not 'What do I want to be?'", she explains, 'but "'Who do I want to be?', 'How do I want to show up in the world?'"
So how does Michelle Obama show up in the world? Perhaps as a sower of seeds. Having brought her audience down to earth with the observation that change takes time and the benefits of what we do now may not be felt until our grandchildren’s time, she had already planted the idea that this was a worthwhile labour. Allied with the public pledges they had made earlier, there was a genuine sense that room was filled with young women who wanted to change the world for the better.
Maya Angelou famously said that, ‘people will never forget how you make them feel.’ After Obama had descended from the stage to hug child after child in the front row, as the screams and applause died down and the school hall cleared, it was clear that each pupil would be returning home feeling something they’d never forget. She had inspired with her words and, just as much, with her actions. What, or rather who, had she just helped them all to become in the future?