Michelle Obama’s memoir Becoming came out in November of 2018, and its messages and themes continue to inspire us. In one chapter, Mrs. Obama describes visiting a school for girls in the UK—the Elizabeth Barrett Anderson School (the chapter is excerpted below)—and how much meeting with the young women had impacted her.
Mrs. Obama maintains a relationship with the school and its pupils, and recently, the former First Lady sat down for a Zoom visit in which she fielded questions from the students. Motherly has an exclusive look at the conversation and Mrs. Obama’s most salient pieces of advice. Though these are intended to be for young women in school, her messages of resilience in the face of the pandemic and other challenges, patience for your own journey (and mistakes!) and more are applicable to grown women, especially those raising children.
Watch and embrace Mrs. Obama’s advice—you just may want to adopt it to tell your own children.
Here is the excerpt from Becoming in which Mrs. Obama describes her visit to the school:
The following day, while Barack went off for a marathon session of meetings on the economy, I went to visit a school for girls. It was a government-funded, inner-city secondary school in the Islington neighborhood, not far from a set of council estates, which is what public-housing projects are called in England. More than 90 percent of the school’s nine hundred students were black or from an ethnic minority; a fifth of them were the children of immigrants or asylum seekers. I was drawn to it because it was a diverse school with limited financial resources and yet had been deemed academically outstanding. I also wanted to make sure that when I visited a new place as First Lady, I really visited it—meaning that I’d have a chance to meet the people who actually lived there, not just those who governed them. Traveling abroad, I had opportunities that Barack didn’t. I could escape the stage-managed multilateral meetings and sit-downs with leaders and find new ways to bring a little extra warmth to those otherwise staid visits. I aimed to do it with every foreign trip, beginning in England.
I wasn’t fully prepared, though, to feel what I did when I set foot inside the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School and was ushered to an auditorium where about two hundred students had gathered to watch some of their peers perform and then hear me speak. The school was named after a pioneering doctor who also became the first female mayor elected in England. The building itself was nothing special—a boxy brick building on a nondescript street. But as I settled into a folding chair onstage and started watching the performance—which included a Shakespeare scene, a modern dance, and a chorus singing a beautiful rendition of a Whitney Houston song—something inside me began to quake. I almost felt myself falling backward into my own past.
You had only to look around at the faces in the room to know that despite their strengths these girls would need to work hard to be seen. There were girls in hijab, girls for whom English was a second language, girls whose skin made up every shade of brown. I knew they’d have to push back against the stereotypes that would get put on them, all the ways they’d be defined before they’d had a chance to define themselves. They’d need to fight the invisibility that comes with being poor, female, and of color. They’d have to work to find their voices and not be diminished, to keep themselves from getting beaten down. They would have to work just to learn.
But their faces were hopeful, and now so was I. For me it was a strange, quiet revelation: They were me, as I’d once been. And I was them, as they could be. The energy I felt thrumming in that school had nothing to do with obstacles. It was the power of nine hundred girls striving.
When the performance was done and I went to the lectern to speak, I could barely contain my emotion. I glanced down at my prepared notes but suddenly had little interest in them. Looking up at the girls, I just began to talk, explaining that though I had come from far away, carrying this strange title of First Lady of the United States, I was more like them than they knew. That I, too, was from a working class neighborhood, raised by a family of modest means and loving spirit, that I’d realized early on that school was where I could start defining myself—that an education was a thing worth working for, that it would help spring them forward in the world.
At this point, I’d been First Lady for just over two months. In different moments, I’d felt overwhelmed by the pace, unworthy of the glamour, anxious about our children, and uncertain of my purpose. There are pieces of public life, of giving up one’s privacy to become a walking, talking symbol of a nation, that can seem specifically designed to strip away part of your identity. But here, finally, speaking to those girls, I felt something completely different and pure—an alignment of my old self with this new role. Are you good enough? Yes, you are, all of you. I told the students of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson that they’d touched my heart. I told them that they were precious, because they truly were. And when my talk was over, I did what was instinctive. I hugged absolutely every single girl I could reach.