Commencement Address by the First Lady at the Martin Luther King Jr. Magnet High School Ceremony in Nashville, Tennessee
MRS. OBAMA: Yes! (Applause.) Wow. Good afternoon, everyone! Yes. I am thrilled to be here. And go, Royals. You all are awesome. (Applause.) So proud of you. This is very touching. This is the only high school graduation I'm doing this year, and this is a special treat for me. (Applause.)
Let me start by thanking Mustapha for that very kind introduction -- and I would love to see his mom's arms. (Laughter.) Where are they? Where is she? Oh, yes. Yes! (Laughter and applause.) I love that. And she's showing them off, too. (Laughter.) Yes, indeed.
I also want to thank Dr. Turner for her leadership of this magnificent school. Absolutely. (Applause.) Especially for all the steps the school has taken to serve healthy food and to make sure you all -- yes, as Mustapha said -- get off the couch and move. (Laughter.) We are just pleased to see the wonderful example this school is setting for schools across the country, and you should be very proud of that.
I also want to recognize Congressman Cooper, Nashville Mayor Karl Dean, President Glover from Tennessee State University. Thank you for hosting us here today. (Applause.) And all I can say about the MLK wind ensemble is, wow, you guys are really good. That was so good. Oh! (Applause.) Pose, all of you. Very good.
And of course, I just want to thank Rafat, Lauren and Busra for their wonderful remarks, great speeches. I will remember those speeches, so forget about your class. I will remember the valedictorian and salutatorian speeches here. (Laughter.) But congratulations on all your hard work.
And of course, I want to join in all of the thanks to the moms and the dads, and the brothers and sisters, and all the extended family members who are here with us today. You all have been there for these graduates every step of the way. And as a mom myself, I am not looking forward to this day. (Laughter.) I want to hold onto my babies as long as possible. So I know this is bittersweet, but thank you for loving these young people and encouraging them and keeping them in line. And so you all deserve, yes, another round of applause for the families. Indeed. (Applause.) Congratulations.
And most importantly, I want to congratulate these fine young men and women right in front of us: the MLK Class of 2013. Yes. Yes, indeed. (Applause.) You all look good, too. You look very good.
Now, it's my understanding -- and one of the reasons why I wanted to come here is that I know that this is a very special school, and this is a wonderfully accomplished class, from your incredible band program to those three state track titles the girls won -- yes -- (applause) -- to all the volunteering you've done in your community to the three graduates who made the national semifinals in the Intel Science Talent Search. (Applause.) I could go on and on and on.
You all should be very proud of the great things that you have done in your lives so far. As a class, you have earned millions of dollars in college scholarships, and this fall you will be heading to schools all across this country -- UT, Vanderbilt, Columbia, Duke, Colorado, so many more.
So I think it is fair to say that you all have certainly lived up to your class slogan: "Act like a Royal, but think like a boss." Yes. Yes. (Applause.)
And today, you become the latest in a long line of success stories that started here at MLK. Every single student in this class -- senior class has graduated. Every single one of you is going on to higher education or the military. So this school is truly the realization of the dream of educational empowerment for all, a dream that began 130 years ago, back when your Pearl building first opened its doors as a school for young African Americans.
And since that building became home to MLK, students from every background, every culture, every Zip Code throughout Nashville have walked through your halls each day to read and to write, and to think and to dream.
And I have to tell you, another reason why I wanted to come here is that all the things I've heard about this school, it is so familiar to me because I actually went to a school just like this one when I was your age. I grew up on the South Side of Chicago, and as I made my way through -- yes, South Side. (Laughter and applause.) South Side. South Side -- you can find them everywhere. (Laughter.)
But as I made my way through elementary school, because we didn't have junior high, my number one goal was to go to a high school that would push me and challenge me. I wanted to go somewhere that would celebrate achievement; a place where academic success wouldn't make me a target of teasing or bullying, but instead would be a badge of honor. And for me, Whitney Young Magnet High School was that place. And during my four years there, I made the most of all my experiences. I chose the classes that I thought would get me ahead. I signed up for every activity that I could fill up my applications with, and I focused my life around the singular goal of getting into the next school of my dreams, which was Princeton University. And I -- (applause) -- thank you.
But let me tell you, I still remember that time in my life so vividly, and you will, too. It seemed like every paper was life or death, every point on an exam was worth fighting for. Yes, a lot of head-shaking there, a lot of faculty. You're sick of them lobbying you for some extra points, aren't you? (Laughter.)
My whole identity was bound up in checking those boxes, winning every award I could. And I was good at it, too. (Laughter.) By the time I got to my high school graduation, I was at the top of my class, a member of the National Honor Society, student council treasurer, and my college dream had come true: I was heading to Princeton that fall. So I thought I had everything I needed to get ahead.
But graduates, I just want to share something with you that I learned. I learned that I had it all wrong. Yes. It wouldn't be the first time. But everything I was so concerned about -- the grades, the test scores, the worries about which schools my friends were getting into -- all of that stuff was far less important than I'd always thought. Because when I got to college, it turned out that I needed an entirely new set of skills to earn my degree. Now, don't get me wrong; I'm not saying that grades aren't important. I'm just saying that they're less important than what you learn and what you're made of. And that's what I want to talk with you about today. (Applause.)
Yes, I want to talk about what lies ahead for all of you and some of the things I wish I'd known when I was in your shoes. And the first thing I want to talk about is the importance of community.
Now, when I arrived at Princeton, the whole college experience was a mystery to me. I was sleeping in a room with strangers. And as I looked around at all the other students who had come from wealthy families and were third and fourth generation Princetonians, I didn't always feel like I fit in. I was a little lonely at times, and so what I understood was that I needed to build a community of my own, right?
So I worked hard to make new friends in my classes and at the campus cultural center. I reached out to professors and administrators around campus. And soon enough, I had built a wonderful group of friends and supporters that became my family away from home, and I relied on that family probably as heavily as you rely on your family -- stopping by folks' rooms when I was bored; calling up folks when I needed to vent; leaning on them when I was anxious, or down, or just plain tired. And what I know now is that I would not have made it through that college period without that group of people by my side.
So, graduates, first thing I want you to know, I want you to think about the importance of the community that you have here at MLK, because it seems like a very special bond that you all have. You've got your friends here at school. You've got great teachers. When you go home to your family, you've got parents and siblings who know you inside and out.
But just understand that when you get to college, that's all gone. So you're really going to have to work to recreate that community, that system of support, and you're going to have to do it from the ground up. And there are so many ways to do that. You might try volunteering in a service group or joining a choir or a band. You might find your new community on your dorm floor or on an intramural soccer field.
It doesn't matter where you find it, just be sure to find it. Because it is so much harder to get through college if you try to do this on your own, okay? And I know that some of you might be feeling a little anxious about that aspect of the college experience. Maybe you don't know anybody at the school you're heading to. Maybe you never felt like you quite fit in here at MLK. I don't know.
But here is something that I want you to remember. The beautiful thing about college is that you get to start with a clean slate. And while it might take a little time, I guarantee you that you will find friends that will let you be the person you always wanted to be. You will find friends who will challenge you and inspire you, friends who will be there for you when something goes wrong -- because believe me, something inevitably will go wrong.
And that leads me to the second thing that I want to talk to you about, and that is failure. Yes, failure. It's probably a concept that many of you aren't very used to. I know I was like that. Or maybe you are, which is good. (Laughter.) Then you're ready.
But when I got to college, that happened to me during my very first semester. I took a class on Greek mythology -- yes, Greek mythology -- that was way over my head. I found myself sitting in a lecture hall full of juniors and seniors -- how did I get there? -- struggling just to keep up, and by the time I took the midterm exam, all I could muster was a C -- and it was the very first C I'd ever gotten and I was devastated.
But instead of wilting, I found a way to fight through it: I poured my heart and soul into a paper. I spent a lot of time talking to the professor before and after class. And in the end, I ended up getting a good grade in that class. But what I learned was far more important than that letter grade from that experience. What I learned was that when something doesn't go your way, you've just got to adjust. You've got to dig deep and work like crazy. And that's when you'll find out what you're really made of, during those hard times.
But you can only do that if you're willing to put yourself in a position where you might fail. And that's why so often, failure is the key to success for so many great people. Take Steve Jobs, who was fired from Apple early in his career, and now his iPods and iPads and iPhones have revolutionized the entire world. Oprah was demoted from her first job as a news anchor, now she doesn't even need a last name. (Laughter.) And then there's this guy, Barack Obama, who lost -- (applause) -- I could take up a whole afternoon talking about his failures, but -- (laughter) -- he lost his first race for Congress, and now he gets to call himself my husband. (Laughter and applause.)
All jokes aside, the point is, is that resilience and grit, that ability to pick yourself up when you fall. Those are some of the most important skills you'll need as you make your way through college and through life.
And here's the thing, graduates: These qualities are not ones that you're born with. They're not like the color of your eyes or your height. They're not qualities that are beyond your control. Instead, you can dictate whether you'll have grit. You decide how hard you'll work. So I want you to make those choices right now, today, if you haven't already done so. Make those choices. I want you to tell yourself that no matter what challenges you face, that you will commit yourself to achieving your goals, no matter where life takes you.
And that brings me to my final point, and that's finding your passion. And I'll be honest. I didn't find my passion until long after college; heck, until after law school. I mean, the truth is I spent -- still spent way too much of my time at Princeton continuing to chase grades and check boxes and climb higher and higher. I went on to law school, I did the same thing. By the time I was in my mid-20s, I had everything I was told I should want -– a fancy job at a prestigious law firm, a big office, a nice paycheck.
But on the inside, something was missing. And so after a few knocks, I finally asked myself some big questions -- simple questions: What did I want out of my life? What makes me happy? What do I care about? Yes, simple questions that I had never bothered to ask, too busy checking boxes. And soon, I realized that what I really wanted was pretty simple. I wanted to give back to the people around me, to the world around me. I wanted to live my life by the principle that to whom much is given, much is expected. (Applause.)
So for me, that led me to quit that fancy job, and since then I've dedicated my life to giving back. I've worked to train young people for careers in public service. I've started community outreach programs at a college and a hospital. And today, as First Lady, I'm working to honor our nation's military families and help our children grow up healthy. But as I look back, I wish I'd asked myself what I really wanted when I was sitting right where you are.
So, graduates, my message to all of you today is this: Do not waste a minute living someone else's dream. Each of us has unique gifts. (Applause.) But it takes a lot of work, a lot of real work to discover what brings you joy. It just doesn't happen; it requires you spending some time. And you won't find what you love simply by checking boxes or padding your GPA. You won't figure it out only by listening to your guidance counselor, or your friends, or even your parents. You can only find your passion by looking inside yourself. And that's hard work.
And if you don't know what you want to do right now, that's okay. In fact, that's a good thing, because that means you just got the freedom to explore. So use it. I urge you to take classes in college like art history or astronomy or web design, something you've never tried before. And even if you feel like you do know what you want to do, the chances are you're probably going to have a number of different careers throughout your life, just like me. Because the road to happiness is rarely a straight one -- just understand that. It rarely goes easily.
So I really want you guys to be curious, and take risks, and when you get stuck -- and you will; we all do, we still get stuck, right, parents? Still get stuck -- don't be afraid to veer off course and take your life in another direction.
And when you get anxious -- and you will, because we still do, right, parents? -- (laughter) -- or have moments of doubt -- Amen -- (laughter) -- just remember this time, remember all of the things that you have already accomplished right here and now. You've got the tools for greatness right now. Think of all the challenges you have already overcome. Right here in front of us, we have students who have stood up to bullying. We have students who have dropped everything to help take care of ailing parents or grandparents. We have students right here who have overcome some of the most difficult family situations imaginable -- right here.
That's the kind of grit and determination that defines all of you, each and every one of you. You all have worked so hard to make it to this day. And you have been so blessed. Understand how blessed you are to be at a place like MLK. Because unfortunately, schools like this don't exist for every kid. You are blessed. (Applause.) A school that nurtures you and challenges you and inspires you, faculty who leave you with great stories and songs and poems for remembering math. (Laughter.)
But now we need you to make the most of these wonderful opportunities that you've been given, because it is not enough just to make it to college; we need you to complete college. We need you to finish hard and strong and be great leaders. (Applause.) That is your responsibility. That's your next job. (Applause.)
And next year, you're on your own in so many ways. No one is going to be checking on whether or not you make it to class. That's over. No one is going to care if you cut corners on an assignment. No one is going to know whether you're doing your absolute very best every single day. No one but you, that is. And that's all that it takes: No one but you.
So you have to take charge of your lives right now. Today is the day. And I want you to start by figuring out how you're going to create that new community for yourself. I want you to start with keeping that passion for learning burning strong. I want you to start with understanding that when challenges come your way, all you've got to do is dig deep like you've been doing, like you know how, and find a way to come out on the other end stronger.
As Dr. Martin Luther King himself once said, "You don't get to the Promised Land without going through the Wilderness." But, graduates, if you remember all of the wonderful lessons that you've learned here at MLK, if you keep acting like a Royal and thinking like a boss -- (applause) -- then believe me, I am confident that there is no promise you can't realize and there is no telling how bright your futures will be.
So congratulations, again, graduates. We are all so proud of you. You have done it. Godspeed, we love you. Work hard. Stay true. God bless. (Applause.)
Michelle Obama, Commencement Address by the First Lady at the Martin Luther King Jr. Magnet High School Ceremony in Nashville, Tennessee Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/320154