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Becoming Page 6

by Michelle Obama

  At school, we were given an hour-long break for lunch each day. Because my mother didn’t work and our apartment was so close by, I usually marched home with four or five other girls in tow, all of us talking nonstop, ready to sprawl on the kitchen floor to play jacks and watch All My Children while my mom handed out sandwiches. This, for me, began a habit that has sustained me for life, keeping a close and high-spirited council of girlfriends—a safe harbor of female wisdom. In my lunch group, we dissected whatever had gone on that morning at school, any beefs we had with teachers, any assignments that struck us as useless. Our opinions were largely formed by committee. We idolized the Jackson 5 and weren’t sure how we felt about the Osmonds. Watergate had happened, but none of us understood it. It seemed like a lot of old guys talking into microphones in Washington, D.C., which to us was just a faraway city filled with a lot of white buildings and white men.

  My mom, meanwhile, was plenty happy to serve us. It gave her an easy window into our world. As my friends and I ate and gossiped, she often stood by quietly, engaged in some household chore, not hiding the fact that she was taking in every word. In my family, with four of us packed into less than nine hundred square feet of living space, we’d never had any privacy anyway. It mattered only sometimes. Craig, who was suddenly interested in girls, had started taking his phone calls behind closed doors in the bathroom, the phone’s curlicue cord stretched taut across the hallway from its wall-mounted base in the kitchen.

  As Chicago schools went, Bryn Mawr fell somewhere between a bad school and a good school. Racial and economic sorting in the South Shore neighborhood continued through the 1970s, meaning that the student population only grew blacker and poorer with each year. There was, for a time, a citywide integration movement to bus kids to new schools, but Bryn Mawr parents had successfully fought it off, arguing that the money was better spent improving the school itself. As a kid, I had no perspective on whether the facilities were run-down or whether it mattered that there were hardly any white kids left. The school ran from kindergarten all the way through eighth grade, which meant that by the time I’d reached the upper grades, I knew every light switch, every chalkboard and cracked patch of hallway. I knew nearly every teacher and most of the kids. For me, Bryn Mawr was practically an extension of home.

  As I was entering seventh grade, the Chicago Defender, a weekly newspaper that was popular with African American readers, ran a vitriolic opinion piece that claimed Bryn Mawr had gone, in the span of a few years, from being one of the city’s best public schools to a “run-down slum” governed by a “ghetto mentality.” Our school principal, Dr. Lavizzo, immediately hit back with a letter to the editor, defending his community of parents and students and deeming the newspaper piece “an outrageous lie, which seems designed to incite only feelings of failure and flight.”

  Dr. Lavizzo was a round, cheery man who had an Afro that puffed out on either side of his bald spot and who spent most of his time in an office near the building’s front door. It’s clear from his letter that he understood precisely what he was up against. Failure is a feeling long before it becomes an actual result. It’s vulnerability that breeds with self-doubt and then is escalated, often deliberately, by fear. Those “feelings of failure” he mentioned were everywhere already in my neighborhood, in the form of parents who couldn’t get ahead financially, of kids who were starting to suspect that their lives would be no different, of families who watched their better-off neighbors leave for the suburbs or transfer their children to Catholic schools. There were predatory real estate agents roaming South Shore all the while, whispering to home owners that they should sell before it was too late, that they’d help them get out while you still can. The inference being that failure was coming, that it was inevitable, that it had already half arrived. You could get caught up in the ruin or you could escape it. They used the word everyone was most afraid of—“ghetto”—dropping it like a lit match.

  My mother bought into none of this. She’d lived in South Shore for ten years already and would end up staying another forty. She didn’t buy into fearmongering and at the same time seemed equally inoculated against any sort of pie-in-the-sky idealism. She was a straight-down-the-line realist, controlling what she could.

  At Bryn Mawr, she became one of the most active members of the PTA, helping raise funds for new classroom equipment, throwing appreciation dinners for the teachers, and lobbying for the creation of a special multigrade classroom that catered to higher-performing students. This last effort was the brainchild of Dr. Lavizzo, who’d gone to night school to get his PhD in education and had studied a new trend in grouping students by ability rather than by age—in essence, putting the brighter kids together so they could learn at a faster pace.

  The idea was controversial, criticized as being undemocratic, as all “gifted and talented” programs inherently are. But it was also gaining steam as a movement around the country, and for my last three years at Bryn Mawr I was a beneficiary. I joined a group of about twenty students from different grades, set off in a self-contained classroom apart from the rest of the school with our own recess, lunch, music, and gym schedules. We were given special opportunities, including weekly trips to a community college to attend an advanced writing workshop or dissect a rat in the biology lab. Back in the classroom, we did a lot of independent work, setting our own goals and moving at whatever speed best suited us.

  We were given dedicated teachers, first Mr. Martinez and then Mr. Bennett, both gentle and good-humored African American men, both keenly focused on what their students had to say. There was a clear sense that the school had invested in us, which I think made us all try harder and feel better about ourselves. The independent learning setup only served to fuel my competitive streak. I tore through the lessons, quietly keeping tabs on where I stood among my peers as we charted our progress from long division to pre-algebra, from writing single paragraphs to turning in full research papers. For me, it was like a game. And as with any game, like most any kid, I was happiest when I was ahead.

  * * *

  I told my mother everything that happened at school. Her lunchtime update was followed by a second update, which I’d deliver in a rush as I walked through the door in the afternoon, slinging my book bag on the floor and hunting for a snack. I realize I don’t know exactly what my mom did during the hours we were at school, mainly because in the self-centered manner of any child I never asked. I don’t know what she thought about, how she felt about being a traditional homemaker as opposed to working a different job. I only knew that when I showed up at home, there’d be food in the fridge, not just for me, but for my friends. I knew that when my class was going on an excursion, my mother would almost always volunteer to chaperone, arriving in a nice dress and dark lipstick to ride the bus with us to the community college or the zoo.

  In our house, we lived on a budget but didn’t often discuss its limits. My mom found ways to compensate. She did her own nails, dyed her own hair (one time accidentally turning it green), and got new clothes only when my dad bought them for her as a birthday gift. She’d never be rich, but she was always crafty. When we were young, she magically turned old socks into puppets that looked exactly like the Muppets. She crocheted doilies to cover our tabletops. She sewed a lot of my clothes, at least until middle school, when suddenly it meant everything to have a Gloria Vanderbilt swan label on the front pocket of your jeans, and I insisted she stop.

  Every so often, she’d change the layout of our living room, putting a new slipcover on the sofa, swapping out the photos and framed prints that hung on our walls. When the weather turned warm, she did a ritualistic spring cleaning, attacking on all fronts—vacuuming furniture, laundering curtains, and removing every storm window so she could Windex the glass and wipe down the sills before replacing them with screens to allow the spring air into our tiny, stuffy apartment. She’d then often go downstairs to Robbie and Terry’s, particularly as they got older
and less able, to scour that as well. It’s because of my mother that still to this day I catch the scent of Pine-Sol and automatically feel better about life.

  At Christmastime, she got especially creative. One year, she figured out how to cover our boxy metal radiator with corrugated cardboard printed to look like red bricks, stapling everything together so that we’d have a faux chimney that ran all the way to the ceiling and a faux fireplace, complete with a mantel and hearth. She then enlisted my father—the family’s resident artist—to paint a series of orange flames on pieces of very thin rice paper, which, when backlit with a lightbulb, made for a half-convincing fire. On New Year’s Eve, as a matter of tradition, she’d buy a special hors d’oeuvre basket, the kind that came filled with blocks of cheese, smoked oysters in a tin, and different kinds of salami. She’d invite my dad’s sister Francesca over to play board games. We’d order a pizza for dinner and then snack our way elegantly through the rest of the evening, my mom passing around trays of pigs in a blanket, fried shrimp, and a special cheese spread baked on Ritz crackers. As midnight drew close, we’d each have a tiny glass of champagne.

  My mother maintained the sort of parental mind-set that I now recognize as brilliant and nearly impossible to emulate—a kind of unflappable Zen neutrality. I had friends whose mothers rode their highs and lows as if they were their own, and I knew plenty of other kids whose parents were too overwhelmed by their own challenges to be much of a presence at all. My mom was simply even-keeled. She wasn’t quick to judge and she wasn’t quick to meddle. Instead, she monitored our moods and bore benevolent witness to whatever travails or triumphs a day might bring. When things were bad, she gave us only a small amount of pity. When we’d done something great, we received just enough praise to know she was happy with us, but never so much that it became the reason we did what we did.

  Advice, when she offered it, tended to be of the hard-boiled and pragmatic variety. “You don’t have to like your teacher,” she told me one day after I came home spewing complaints. “But that woman’s got the kind of math in her head that you need in yours. Focus on that and ignore the rest.”

  She loved us consistently, Craig and me, but we were not overmanaged. Her goal was to push us out into the world. “I’m not raising babies,” she’d tell us. “I’m raising adults.” She and my dad offered guidelines rather than rules. It meant that as teenagers we’d never have a curfew. Instead, they’d ask, “What’s a reasonable time for you to be home?” and then trust us to stick to our word.

  Craig tells a story about a girl he liked in eighth grade and how one day she issued a kind of loaded invitation, asking him to come by her house, pointedly letting him know that her parents wouldn’t be home and they’d be left alone.

  My brother had privately agonized over whether to go or not—titillated by the opportunity but knowing it was sneaky and dishonorable, the sort of behavior my parents would never condone. This didn’t, however, stop him from telling my mother a preliminary half-truth, letting her know about the girl but saying they were going to meet in the public park.

  Guilt-ridden before he’d even done it, guilt-ridden for even thinking about it, Craig finally confessed the whole home-alone scheme, expecting or maybe just hoping that my mom would blow a gasket and forbid him to go.

  But she didn’t. She wouldn’t. It wasn’t how she operated.

  She listened, but she didn’t absolve him from the choice at hand. Instead, she returned him to his agony with a blithe shrug of her shoulders. “Handle it how you think best,” she said, before turning back to the dishes in the sink or the pile of laundry she had to fold.

  It was another small push out into the world. I’m sure that in her heart my mother knew already that he’d make the right choice. Every move she made, I realize now, was buttressed by the quiet confidence that she’d raised us to be adults. Our decisions were on us. It was our life, not hers, and always would be.

  * * *

  By the time I was fourteen, I basically thought of myself as half a grown-up anyway—maybe even as two-thirds of a grown-up. I’d gotten my period, which I announced immediately and with huge excitement to everyone in the house, because that was just the kind of household we had. I’d graduated from a training bra to one that looked vaguely more womanly, which also thrilled me. Instead of coming home for lunch, I now ate with my classmates in Mr. Bennett’s room at school. Instead of dropping in at Southside’s house on Saturdays to listen to his jazz records and play with Rex, I rode my bike right past, headed east to the bungalow on Oglesby Avenue where the Gore sisters lived.

  The Gore sisters were my best friends and also a little bit my idols. Diane was in my grade, and Pam a grade behind. Both were beautiful girls—Diane was fair-skinned, and Pam was darker—each with a kind of self-possessed grace that seemed to come naturally. Even their little sister, Gina, who was a few years younger, emanated a robust femininity that I came to think of simply as Gore-like. Theirs was a home with few men. Their father didn’t live there and was rarely discussed. There was one much older brother who was a peripheral presence. Mrs. Gore was an upbeat, attractive woman who worked full-time. She had a makeup table laden with perfume bottles and face powder compacts and various ointments in tiny pots, which given my mother’s modest practicality seemed as exotic as jewels to me. I loved spending time at their house. Pam, Diane, and I talked endlessly about which boys we liked. We put on lip gloss and took turns trying on one another’s clothes, suddenly aware that certain pairs of pants made our hips look curvier. Much of my energy in those days was spent inside my own head, sitting alone in my room listening to music, daydreaming about a slow dance with a cute boy, or glancing out the window, hoping for a crush to ride his bike down the block. So it was a blessing to have found some sisters to ride through these years with together.

  Boys weren’t allowed inside the Gore house, but they buzzed around it like flies. They rode their bikes back and forth on the sidewalk. They sat on the front stoop, hoping Diane or Pam might come out to flirt. It was fun to be around all this expectancy, even as I was unsure of what it all meant. Everywhere I looked, bodies were changing. Boys from school were suddenly man-sized and awkward, their energy twitchy and their voices deep. Some of my girlfriends, meanwhile, looked like they were eighteen, walking around in short-shorts and halter tops, their expressions cool and confident as if they knew some secret, as if they now existed on a different plane, while the rest of us remained uncertain and slightly dumbfounded, waiting for our call-up to the adult world, foal-like on our growing legs and young in a way that no amount of lip gloss could yet fix.

  Like a lot of girls, I became aware of the liabilities of my body early, long before I began to even look like a woman. I moved around the neighborhood now with more independence, less tied to my parents. I’d catch a city bus to go to late-afternoon dance classes at Mayfair Academy on Seventy-Ninth Street, where I was taking jazz and acrobatics. I ran errands for my mom sometimes. With the new freedoms came new vulnerabilities. I learned to keep my gaze fixed firmly ahead anytime I passed a group of men clustered on a street corner, careful not to register their eyes roving over my chest and legs. I knew to ignore the catcalls when they came. I learned which blocks in our neighborhood were thought to be more dangerous than others. I knew never to walk alone at night.

  At home, my parents made one major concession to the fact they were housing two growing teenagers, renovating the back porch off our kitchen and converting it into a bedroom for Craig, who was now a sophomore in high school. The flimsy partition that Southside had built for us years earlier came down. I moved into what had been my parents’ room, they rotated into what had been the kids’ room, and for the first time my brother and I had actual space for ourselves. My new bedroom was dreamy, complete with a blue-and-white floral bed skirt and pillow shams, a crisp navy-blue rug, and a white princess-style bed with a matching dresser and lamp—a near-exact replica of a full-
page bedroom layout I’d liked in the Sears catalog and been allowed to get. Each of us was given our own phone extension, too—my phone was a light blue to match my new decor, while Craig’s was a manly black—which meant we could conduct our personal business semi-privately.

  I arranged my first real kiss, in fact, over the phone. It was with a boy named Ronnell. Ronnell didn’t go to my school or live in my immediate neighborhood, but he sang in the Chicago Children’s Choir with my classmate Chiaka, and with Chiaka acting as intermediary, we somehow had decided we liked each other. Our phone calls were a little awkward, but I didn’t care. I liked the feeling of being liked. I felt a zing of anticipation every time the phone rang. Could it be Ronnell? I don’t remember which one of us proposed that we meet outside my house one afternoon to give kissing a try, but there was no nuance to it; no shy euphemisms needed to be applied. We weren’t going to “hang out” or “take a walk.” We were going to make out. And we were both all for it.

  Which is how I landed on the stone bench that sat near the side door of my family’s house, in full view of the south-facing windows and surrounded by my great-aunt’s flower beds, lost in a warm splishy kiss with Ronnell. There was nothing earth-shattering or especially inspiring about it, but it was fun. Being around boys, I was slowly coming to realize, was fun. The hours I passed watching Craig’s games from the bleachers of one gym or another began to feel less like a sisterly obligation. Because what was a basketball game if not a showcase of boys? I’d wear my snuggest jeans and lay on some extra bracelets and sometimes bring one of the Gore sisters along to boost my visibility in the stands. And then I’d enjoy every minute of the sweaty spectacle before me—the leaping and charging, the rippling and roaring, the pulse of maleness and all its mysteries on full display. When a boy on the JV team smiled at me as he left the court one evening, I smiled right back. It felt like my future was just beginning to arrive.


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