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Becoming Page 8

by Michelle Obama

  My parents never once spoke of the stress of having to pay for college, but I knew enough to appreciate that it was there. When my French teacher announced that she’d be leading an optional class trip to Paris over one of our breaks for those who could come up with the money to do it, I didn’t even bother to raise the issue at home. This was the difference between me and the Jack and Jill kids, many of whom were now my close friends. I had a loving and orderly home, bus fare to get me across town to school, and a hot meal to come home to at night. Beyond that, I wasn’t going to ask my parents for a thing.

  Yet one evening my parents sat me down, looking puzzled. My mom had learned about the France trip through Terri Johnson’s mom.

  “Why didn’t you tell us?” she said.

  “Because it’s too much money.”

  “That’s actually not for you to decide, Miche,” my dad said gently, almost offended. “And how are we supposed to decide, if we don’t even know about it?”

  I looked at them both, unsure of what to say. My mother glanced at me, her eyes soft. My father had changed out of his work uniform and into a clean white shirt. They were in their early forties then, married nearly twenty years. Neither one of them had ever vacationed in Europe. They never took beach trips or went out to dinner. They didn’t own a house. We were their investment, me and Craig. Everything went into us.

  A few months later, I boarded a flight to Paris with my teacher and a dozen or so of my classmates from Whitney Young. We would stay in a hostel, tour the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower. We’d buy crêpes au fromage from stands on the street and walk along the banks of the Seine. We’d speak French like a bunch of high school kids from Chicago, but we’d at least speak French. As the plane pulled away from its gate that day, I looked out my window and back at the airport, knowing that my mother stood somewhere behind its black-glass windows, dressed in her winter coat and waving me on. I remember the jet engines firing, shockingly loud. And then we were rattling down the runway and beginning to tilt upward as the acceleration seized my chest and pressed me backward into my seat for that strange, in-between half moment that comes before finally you feel lifted.

  * * *

  In the manner of all high schoolers everywhere, my friends and I liked to loiter. We loitered boisterously and we loitered in public. On days when school got out early or when homework was light, we flocked from Whitney Young to downtown Chicago, landing in the eight-story mall at Water Tower Place. Once there, we rode the escalators up and down, spent our money on gourmet popcorn from Garrett’s, and commandeered tables at McDonald’s for more hours than was reasonable, given how little food we ordered. We browsed the designer jeans and the purses at Marshall Field’s, often surreptitiously tailed by security guards who didn’t like the look of us. Sometimes we went to a movie.

  We were happy—happy with our freedom, happy with one another, happy with the way the city seemed to glitter more on days when we weren’t thinking about school. We were city kids learning how to range.

  I spent a lot of my time with a classmate named Santita Jackson, who in the mornings boarded the Jeffery bus a few stops after I did and who became one of my best friends in high school. Santita had beautiful dark eyes, full cheeks, and the bearing of a wise woman, even at sixteen. At school, she was one of those kids who signed up for every AP class available and seemed to ace them all. She wore skirts when everyone else wore jeans and had a singing voice so clear and powerful that she’d end up touring years later as a backup singer for Roberta Flack. She was also deep. It’s what I loved most about Santita. Like me, she could be frivolous and goofy when we were with a larger group, but on our own we’d get ponderous and intense, two girl-philosophers together trying to sort out life’s issues, big and small. We passed hours sprawled on the floor of Santita’s room on the second floor of her family’s white Tudor house in Jackson Park Highlands, a more affluent section of South Shore, talking about things that irked us and where our lives were headed and what we did and didn’t understand about the world. As a friend, she was a good listener and insightful, and I tried to be the same.

  Santita’s father was famous. This was the primary, impossible-to-get-around fact of her life. She was the eldest child of the Reverend Jesse Jackson, the firebrand Baptist preacher and increasingly powerful political leader. Jackson had worked closely with Martin Luther King Jr. and risen to national prominence himself in the early 1970s as the founder of a political organization called Operation PUSH, which advocated for the rights of underserved African Americans. By the time we were in high school, he’d become an outright celebrity—charismatic, well connected, and constantly on the move. He toured the country, mesmerizing crowds with thundering calls for black people to shake off the undermining ghetto stereotypes and claim their long-denied political power. He preached a message of relentless, let’s-do-this self-empowerment. “Down with dope! Up with hope!” he’d call to his audiences. He had schoolkids sign pledges to turn off the TV and devote two hours to their homework each night. He made parents promise to stay involved. He pushed back against the feelings of failure that permeated so many African American communities, urging people to quit with the self-pity and take charge of their own destiny. “Nobody, but nobody,” he’d yell, “is too poor to turn off the TV two hours a night!”

  Hanging around Santita’s house could be exciting. The place was roomy and a little chaotic, home to the family’s five children and stuffed with heavy Victorian furniture and antique glassware that Santita’s mom, Jacqueline, liked to collect. Mrs. Jackson, as I called her, had an expansive spirit and a big laugh. She wore colorful, billowy clothes and served meals at a massive table in the dining room, hosting anyone who turned up, mostly people who belonged to what she called “the movement.” This included business leaders, politicians, and poets, plus a coterie of famous people, from singers to athletes.

  When Reverend Jackson was at home, a different energy pulsed through the house. Routines were cast aside; dinner conversations lasted late into the night. Advisers came and went. Plans were always being made. Unlike at my apartment on Euclid, where life ran at an orderly and predictable pace, where my parents’ concerns rarely extended beyond keeping our family happy and on track for success, the Jacksons seemed caught up in something larger, messier, and seemingly more impactful. Their engagement was outward; their community was big, their mission important. Santita and her siblings were being raised to be politically active. They knew how and what to boycott. They marched for their father’s causes. They went on his work trips, visiting places like Israel and Cuba, New York and Atlanta. They’d stood on stages in front of big crowds and were learning to absorb the anxiety and controversy that came with having a father, maybe especially a black father, in public life. Reverend Jackson had bodyguards—large, silent men who traveled with him. At the time, it only half registered with me that there had been threats against his life.

  Santita adored her father and was proud of his work, but she was also trying to live her own life. She and I were all for strengthening the character of black youth across America, but we also needed rather desperately to get to Water Tower Place before the K-Swiss sneaker sale ended. We often found ourselves looking for rides or to borrow a car. Because I lived in a one-car family with two working parents, the odds were usually better at the Jacksons’ house, where Mrs. Jackson had both a wood-paneled station wagon and a little sports car. Sometimes we’d hitch rides with the various staff members or visitors who buzzed in and out. What we sacrificed was control. This would become one of my early, unwitting lessons about life in politics: Schedules and plans never seemed to stick. Even standing on the far edge of the vortex, you still felt its spin. Santita and I were often stuck waiting out some delay that related to her father—a meeting that was running long or a plane that was still circling the airport—or detouring through a series of last-minute stops. We’d think we were getting a ride home from school or going
to the mall, but instead we’d end up at a political rally on the West Side or stranded for hours at the Operation PUSH headquarters in Hyde Park.

  One day we found ourselves marching with a crowd of Jesse Jackson supporters in the Bud Billiken Day Parade. The parade, named for a fictional character from a long-ago newspaper column, is one of the South Side’s grandest traditions, held every August—an extravaganza of marching bands and floats that runs for almost two miles along Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, through the heart of the African American neighborhood that was once referred to as the Black Belt but was later rechristened Bronzeville. The Bud Billiken Day Parade had been going on since 1929, and it was all about African American pride. If you were any sort of community leader or politician, it was—and still is, to this day—more or less mandatory that you show up and walk the route.

  I didn’t know it at the time, but the vortex around Santita’s father was starting to spin faster. Jesse Jackson was a few years from formally launching a run to be president of the United States, which means he was likely beginning to actively consider the idea during the time we were in high school. Money had to be raised. Connections needed to be made. Running for president, I understand now, is an all-consuming, full-body effort for every person involved, and good campaigns tend to involve a stage-setting, groundwork-laying preamble, which can add whole years to the effort. Setting his sights on the 1984 election, Jesse Jackson would become the second African American ever to run a serious national campaign for the presidency, after Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm’s unsuccessful run in 1972. My guess is that at least some of this was on his mind at the time of the parade.

  What I knew was that I personally didn’t love the feeling of being out there, thrust under a baking sun amid balloons and bullhorns, amid trombones and throngs of cheering people. The fanfare was fun and even intoxicating, but there was something about it, and about politics in general, that made me queasy. For one thing, I was someone who liked things to be neat and planned in advance, and from what I could tell, there seemed to be nothing especially neat about a life in politics. The parade had not been part of my plan. As I remember it, Santita and I hadn’t intended on joining at all. We’d been conscripted at the last minute, maybe by her mother or father, or by someone else in the movement who’d caught us before we could follow through on whatever ideas we’d had for ourselves that day. But I loved Santita dearly, and I was also a polite kid who for the most part went along with what adults told me to do, and so I’d done it. I’d plunged myself deep into the hot, spinning noisiness of the Bud Billiken Day Parade.

  I arrived home at Euclid Avenue that evening to find my mother laughing.

  “I just saw you on TV,” she said.

  She’d been watching the news and spotted me marching alongside Santita, waving and smiling and going along. What made her laugh, I’d guess, is that she also picked up on the queasiness—the fact that maybe I’d been caught up in something I’d rather not do.

  * * *

  When it came time to look at colleges, Santita and I both were interested in schools on the East Coast. She went to check out Harvard but was disheartened when an admissions officer pointedly harassed her about her father’s politics, when all she wanted was to be taken on her own terms. I spent a weekend visiting Craig at Princeton, where he seemed to have slipped into a productive rhythm of playing basketball, taking classes, and hanging out at a campus center designed for minority students. The campus was large and pretty—an Ivy League school covered with ivy—and Craig’s friends seemed nice enough. I didn’t overthink it from there. No one in my immediate family had much in the way of direct experience with college, so there was little, anyway, to debate or explore. As had always been the case, I figured that whatever Craig liked, I would like, too, and that whatever he could accomplish, I could as well. And with that, Princeton became my top choice for school.

  Early in my senior year at Whitney Young, I went for an obligatory first appointment with the school college counselor to whom I’d been assigned.

  I can’t tell you much about the counselor, because I deliberately and almost instantly blotted this experience out. I don’t remember her age or race or how she happened to look at me that day when I turned up in her office doorway, full of pride at the fact that I was on track to graduate in the top 10 percent of my class at Whitney Young, that I’d been elected treasurer of the senior class, made the National Honor Society, and managed to vanquish pretty much every doubt I’d arrived with as a nervous ninth grader. I don’t remember whether she inspected my transcript before or after I announced my interest in joining my brother at Princeton the following fall.

  It’s possible, in fact, that during our short meeting the college counselor said things to me that might have been positive and helpful, but I recall none of it. Because rightly or wrongly, I got stuck on one single sentence the woman uttered.

  “I’m not sure,” she said, giving me a perfunctory, patronizing smile, “that you’re Princeton material.”

  Her judgment was as swift as it was dismissive, probably based on a quick-glance calculus involving my grades and test scores. It was some version, I imagine, of what this woman did all day long and with practiced efficiency, telling seniors where they did and didn’t belong. I’m sure she figured she was only being realistic. I doubt that she gave our conversation another thought.

  But as I’ve said, failure is a feeling long before it’s an actual result. And for me, it felt like that’s exactly what she was planting—a suggestion of failure long before I’d even tried to succeed. She was telling me to lower my sights, which was the absolute reverse of every last thing my parents had ever told me.

  Had I decided to believe her, her pronouncement would have toppled my confidence all over again, reviving the old thrum of not enough, not enough.

  But three years of keeping up with the ambitious kids at Whitney Young had taught me that I was something more. I wasn’t going to let one person’s opinion dislodge everything I thought I knew about myself. Instead, I switched my method without changing my goal. I would apply to Princeton and a scattershot selection of other schools, but without any more input from the college counselor. Instead, I sought help from someone who actually knew me. Mr. Smith, my assistant principal and neighbor, had seen my strengths as a student and furthermore trusted me with his own kids. He agreed to write me a recommendation letter.

  I’ve been lucky enough now in my life to meet all sorts of extraordinary and accomplished people—world leaders, inventors, musicians, astronauts, athletes, professors, entrepreneurs, artists and writers, pioneering doctors and researchers. Some (though not enough) of them are women. Some (though not enough) are black or of color. Some were born poor or have lived lives that to many of us would appear to have been unfairly heaped with adversity, and yet still they seem to operate as if they’ve had every advantage in the world. What I’ve learned is this: All of them have had doubters. Some continue to have roaring, stadium-sized collections of critics and naysayers who will shout I told you so at every little misstep or mistake. The noise doesn’t go away, but the most successful people I know have figured out how to live with it, to lean on the people who believe in them, and to push onward with their goals.

  That day I left the college counselor’s office at Whitney Young, I was fuming, my ego bruised more than anything. My only thought, in the moment, was I’ll show you.

  But then I settled down and got back to work. I never thought getting into college would be easy, but I was learning to focus and have faith in my own story. I tried to tell the whole thing in my college essay. Rather than pretending that I was madly intellectual and thought I’d fit right in inside the ivy-strewn walls of Princeton, I wrote about my father’s MS and my family’s lack of experience with higher education. I owned the fact that I was reaching. Given my background, reaching was really all I could do.

  And ultimately, I suppose t
hat I did show that college counselor, because six or seven months later, a letter arrived in our mailbox on Euclid Avenue, offering me admission to Princeton. My parents and I celebrated that night by having pizza delivered from Italian Fiesta. I called Craig and shouted the good news. The next day I knocked on Mr. Smith’s door to tell him about my acceptance, thanking him for his help. I never did stop in on the college counselor to tell her she’d been wrong—that I was Princeton material after all. It would have done nothing for either of us. And in the end, I hadn’t needed to show her anything. I was only showing myself.


  My dad drove me to Princeton in the summer of 1981, across the flat highways connecting Illinois to New Jersey. But it was more than a simple father-daughter road trip. My boyfriend, David, came along for the ride. I’d been invited to attend a special three-week summer orientation program, meant to close a “preparation gap,” giving certain incoming freshmen extra time and help settling into college. It was unclear exactly how we were identified—what part of our admissions applications had tipped the university off to the idea that we might benefit from lessons on how to read a syllabus or advance practice navigating the pathways between campus buildings—but Craig had done it two years earlier, and it seemed like an opportunity. So I packed up my stuff, said good-bye to my mom—neither of us teary or sentimental—and climbed into the car.

  My eagerness to leave town was fueled in part by the fact I’d spent the last couple of months working an assembly-line job, operating what was basically an industrial-sized glue gun at a small bookbinding factory in downtown Chicago—a soul-killing routine that went on for eight hours a day, five days a week, and served as possibly the single most reinforcing reminder that going to college was a good idea. David’s mom worked at the bookbindery and had helped get the two of us jobs there. We’d worked shoulder to shoulder all summer, which made the whole endeavor more palatable. David was smart and gentle, a tall, good-looking guy who was two years older than I was. He’d first befriended Craig on the neighborhood basketball court in Rosenblum Park a few years earlier, joining pickup games when he came to visit relatives who lived on Euclid Parkway. Eventually, he started hanging around with me. During the school year, David went away to college out of state, which conveniently kept him from being any sort of distraction from my studies. During holiday breaks and over the summer, though, he came home to stay with his mom on the far southwest side of the city and drove over almost every day to pick me up in his car.


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