Dozens of high school students attending a leadership conference for young women in Dallas had been studying former First Lady Michelle Obama’s memoir — but none of them expected to meet her Monday afternoon.
The young women were discussing Becoming at the Winspear Opera House, and then she peeked out from behind the curtain.
The students erupted into a chorus of oh-my-Gods. Some started crying.
She popped into the discussion ahead of her presentation to a sold-out American Airlines Center crowd later Monday night, which the students also had a chance to attend.
Ashawnti Black, an 18-year-old student at Irma Rangel Young Women’s Leadership School, couldn’t believe what she was seeing.
“I was staring at her like, ‘Do you guys see her? Is it just me? Do you guys see her too?'” Black said.
When Obama hugged her, Black said, the former first lady told her she was beautiful and congratulated her for getting into her dream school: Spelman College in Atlanta.
Black said Obama is “everything” to her — second to her mother, of course. Obama has no shame about who she is, and that inspires Black to live shamelessly, too, the teen said.
“She came from South Side Chicago, and I come from Pleasant Grove,” Black said. “I can be whatever I want to be. I am going to change the world. I’m going to be a proud product of my environment.”
After embracing each girl, Obama sat on a couch surrounded by the students.
“So you guys didn’t know I was coming?” she said. “What have you guys been talking about?”
Several students shared with her the part of the book in which a high school adviser told Obama that she wasn’t “Princeton material” resonated with them.
Obama told the girls she overcame that “punch in the gut” by pushing away negative messages.
“It’s a choice in that moment,” Obama told them. “Do you listen to the negative, or do you remember all the positives — all the good things people have said about you?”
She empathized with the students, who are growing up immersed in social media where they can be vulnerable to lots of negative voices.
“There will always be someone who wants to punch you in the stomach because you’re moving a little too high, you’re saying things they don’t agree with,” Obama said. “You have to practice, vigorously, to tune out the negative and eat up the positive.”
Confident at a young age
During Obama’s talk at American Airlines Center, she touched on the lessons, values and confidence she learned early on. Her father and brother treated her with respect and as an equal, setting a high bar for what she should expect from others, she said.
And her mother, she said, quietly stuck up for her when, as second-grader, she complained of a teacher who didn’t invest in her students and couldn’t keep her classroom under control. Marian Robinson went to the school with a few other parents and got her daughter pulled from the class and promoted into third grade.
The school had taken a downturn when white flight took hold of her neighborhood, Obama said.
“There were people who were afraid of me. We were living our life right, doing everything we were supposed to do,” Obama said. “But with that little whisper of people who didn’t bother to know us, they fled.”
“This is what ‘other’ looks like,” she said.
She shared with the crowd of thousands about meeting Barack Obama — the Harvard student who she expected to be a nerd.
The future president was late the first day that Michelle Robinson had been assigned to mentor him.
It wasn’t an instant attraction, she said, but he grew on her, and over the years, she fell in love with “the whole person.”
“That’s why I don’t believe in love at first sight. To marry someone, you have to watch him unfold,” she said.
Now, the spot of the Obamas’ first kiss is memorialized with a plaque in Chicago, she said, a fact that horrifies daughters Sasha and Malia.
She also recounted how she struggled to give her daughters a normal childhood as they grew up in the White House. She joked about calling up parents of children her daughters wanted to have playdates with and saying, “We’re going to need your social security number.”
When she first stepped into her role as first lady, she was asked about her goals for the position. But she deflected, saying she needed to learn how to be “Mom-in-Chief” first. She recalled getting flak from other women for that answer, but after a few months, she saw how her girls settled into their new lives.
“I was one of those mothers that if my kids weren’t good, I couldn’t be good,” she said.
Kaiya McKinney, a 17-year-old student at the Young Women’s Leadership Academy in Grand Prairie, asked Obama how she learned to take pride in her upbringing in South Side Chicago — a part of the city known for high poverty.
“When people would ask me where I’m from, I would just say Dallas — I wouldn’t say West Dallas,” McKinney said. “I would see that being from a poverty-ridden area, that people tend to look at you differently.”
But seeing how Obama embraced being from South Side Chicago “was seriously empowering,” McKinney said. Going forward, McKinney said she’ll take her West Dallas upbringing as a point of pride.
Monday’s drop-in visit by Obama happened during the inaugural Young Women’s Leadership Conference: Leadership Lessons Learned through the Arts at the AT&T Performing Arts Center.
Obama also spoke briefly to the full group of young women attending the conference: 150 students from nine North Texas high schools.
Isabella Yepes, a senior at The Hockaday School, nodded with wide eyes as Obama addressed the crowd with a message of encouragement.
“I don’t know you personally, but I know who you are,” Obama said. “I know where you come from, I know your stories. You all are just like me!”
Yepes wiped tears from her eyes. As Obama left the stage, Yepes jumped up and down, arms raised, cheering for her. She said she was still in shock from having met the former first lady as part of the smaller group.
“She was such a warm, incredible soul. The moment she walked in there, she hugged all of us,” Yepes said. “Every time I saw her, it was like experiencing it all over again for the first time.”