Michelle Obama photo

Remarks at a Roundtable with the First Lady at a Women's History Month Event

March 19, 2009

MRS. OBAMA: You all excited?

Q: Yes.

MRS. OBAMA: So do I need to introduce myself?

Q: Yes.

MRS. OBAMA: Okay, okay, I will. (Laughter.) Well, my name is Michelle Obama, and I'm the First Lady of the United States of America.

Q: Your husband is -- (inaudible).

MRS. OBAMA: You think he's cute? (Laughter.) I do, too. (Laughter.) Thank you.

So, we're spending the day -- we've got an amazing group of women. You brothers are lucky, because you just -- you got to sneak into this. But we're happy to have you. (Laughter.)

But today we're -- this month is National Women's History Month, and we've been doing a lot of really interesting things out of the White House. But one of the things that I always wanted to do, when I envisioned being the First Lady, is that I wanted to make sure that we spent a whole lot of time outside in the D.C. community -- because I grew up on the South Side of Chicago, and I went to public schools, and my parents were working-class folks. We didn't have a ton of money.

And I lived right near the University of Chicago, which was one of the finest universities in the country. But I've never had a relationship with the University of Chicago. I never set foot on it. I didn't, get to attend any classes. I didn't walk on campus. And I think the assumption was, is that that place was different. It was a college, and it was a fancy college, and it didn't have anything to do with me. And I didn't think they wanted to have anything to do with me. So we never connected -- me and many kids like me in our community, and that big old institution.

Well, I sort of thought, well, if that was the case then, then maybe there are a lot of kids who feel that way about the White House, especially in D.C. You know, you're living 10 minutes away from the power of this nation and the world -- the White House, the Capitol, all those buildings. I know when I would come to visit, I would wonder what's going on in there.

And I wanted to be a part of opening the doors and taking off the veil and saying, this is what's going on there. And one of the best ways -- or most fun ways for me to do that is to come and see you all, and do as much as I can, and eventually have you guys come see me in the White House -- one of these days, soon.

So for Women's History Month, this -- today we've got some amazing women from around the country who have come here, and they're going to schools all across the area: Alicia Keys is here; Debbie Allen; Lisa Leslie; Dominique Dawes, the Olympic Gold medalist; Debra Lee; Phylicia Rashad; Sheryl Crow, a musician; I could go on and on. But all these women, when we called and said, "Would you come to D.C. and spend time in schools?" they said yes. And they flew here on their own, and they're spending time like I am with you all in schools all across this area.

So that's what we're doing today, and I've been looking forward to this, and I can tell you the President is upset because he's in California and I reminded him that today I was doing this. He was like, I want to do what you're doing. But I have the more fun job than he does.

So I'm here to talk, to answer any questions you guys have, to talk about sort of my upbringing, and what happened in my life that led me here, and pretty much to answer anything you guys want. And I know it's hard to ignore the cameras. They're not going to stay here the whole time, but pretend like they're not here. Eventually they'll leave and then, you know, we can talk about things that you might not feel comfortable talking about in front of them. But I'm excited to be here.

Q: Me, too. (Laughter.)

MRS. OBAMA: I'm excited to be here.

So I heard you all were a chatty crowd, that you all weren't shy. So I'm going to stop talking and let you guys --

Q: Do you all still live like normal --

MRS. OBAMA: We still -- you know, as normal as it can be, living in the White House with Secret Service. But, you know, we have two little girls, and they get up and go to school everyday, which --

Q: Why didn't they come?

MRS. OBAMA: Because they're at school. One's in school and one's doing a service project, so they're busy today. And we try not to pull them out of their routines. You know, even when we're doing something special, at least my mother taught me that there was nothing more important than going to school and going on time, and doing your homework. So even when we're doing something that's really special, if it's school, they don't miss school.

And they have to get up, set their alarms, get their own breakfasts, make up their beds, and put on their clothes, and get to school on time. Today my oldest daughter had to be out of the house by 6:30 a.m. She had to wake up on her own at 5:45 a.m., and she did.

And to me that's the kind of practice that I have been doing to get ready for college, right? I tell my kids, all that I'm teaching you in terms of this discipline, it's not because I care whether they make their beds, for example; it's because I know when it's time for them to go to college, that they have to have that discipline of knowing what it feels like to get up at 5:45 a.m. in the morning when you don't want to and you're tired, but you have to get to class, or you have to get something done.

Q: Teaching them responsibility?

MRS. OBAMA: Teaching them responsibility, because responsibility is something you practice, no matter what it's like -- everything else. You're not going to wake up and just be happy about getting up at 5:45 a.m. No one is. I don't like getting up that early. But I get up because I have to and it's a part of being responsible.

So I really do -- my husband and I, we make sure that they live a very normal life, because I'm concerned about them being able to live a life outside, away from me. I don't want them to be so dependent. So we tried to have a normal life, as normal as we can.

Q: So you know our names?

MRS. OBAMA: Yes, I do. I want to -- all right, we'll start going around.

Q: Well, my name is Brittany Morris.

MRS. OBAMA: What's your -- what year are you?

Q: Oh, I'm in the 12th. I'm a senior.

MRS. OBAMA: You're a senior. Is the -- is everybody a senior in -- all right, well, we'll go around and I'll get everybody. All right, so?

Q: My name is Truddie Hawkins. I admire you. (Laughter.)

Q: My name is Kayla Watson and I'm a junior.

Q: My name is Brittany Brown. I'm a junior.

Q: My name is Renee Easterling. I'm a junior.

Q: My name is Shanae Washington. I'm a senior.

Q: (Inaudible) -- grade nine, but you get the idea --

MRS. OBAMA: And you're in grade nine now?

Q: Yes.

MRS. OBAMA: And what's your name?

Q: Marvin.

MRS. OBAMA: Marvin. It's good to see you, Marvin.

Q: Thank you.

MRS. OBAMA: Thanks for being here.

Q: You're welcome.

MRS. OBAMA: All right.

Q: My name is Tiara Chance and I'm in the 12th grade.

Q: My name is Shaunice Reavis, and I'm in 12th.

Q: Well, my name is Jerome Briscoe. I'm in the 12th.

Q: I'm Tanicka Smith and I'm in the 12th.

Q: I'm Ashleigh Cannon, and I'm in the 11th.

Q: I'm Timothy Lowery. I'm 11th, and I play on the basketball team. (Laughter.)

MRS. OBAMA: I heard you had a knee injury.

Q: Yes. (Inaudible.)

MRS. OBAMA: Yes, I know a little bit about you all.

Q: The President --

Q: They're watching you. (Laughter.)

MRS. OBAMA: Yes, we're watching you. (Laughter.) So when you don't do well in school, we see it, too. I know about your knee and I know about other things, too, so. (Laughter.)

Q: What do you know about me? (Laughter.)

MRS. OBAMA: What I do know about all of you all is that you're here because somebody in your school thought that you -- that you had a lot of potential; that each of you have struggled with something, but you've overcome it, you've pushed to the next level. And for me that was important for me. I didn't just want to the kids who had already arrived, but kids who were pushing to get to the next place.

And it's important to know that people notice that effort. Even if you're not doing it perfectly, they know -- they notice when you're giving it a little more effort. And people reward that sometimes more than young people where it just comes naturally, where it's just good. That effort is what makes us proud and see the potential that you have.

So the most important thing about you is that. So that's why you're here, and that's why I'm excited to talk to you. I know that there are hundreds of kids like you across the country, who some people underestimate, right; some people assume can't -- because maybe you made a mistake or you have a little trouble with something, or something is not right at home, you know. But there are a whole lot of people out here like me and the women who have come to D.C. today who just want to take that potential and just push you forward to the next place.

So, tell me what are you thinking about? What's on your mind? What are you worrying about? What do you --

Q: My mind just went --

MRS. OBAMA: Did you say it just went blank? Well, we've got time. You can recover. (Laughter.)

Q: What do you do for fun?

MRS. OBAMA: What do we do for fun?

Q: As a family, with your kids.

MRS. OBAMA: We do -- fun is different when you have kids. It's all kids stuff. It's like -- I haven't been to a grown-up movie in I don't know how long.

Q: It's like you can't -- (inaudible) -- you've got to be followed by the Secret Service and --

MRS. OBAMA: Well, they're pretty good, you know. You know, they bring a lot of commotion, but they're all good, good folks, and they try to make it so that we can do whatever it is that we want to do.

But we didn't do anything before we were here. We were parents and, you know, I'd spend my time taking my kids to their activities, you know, making sure they get the stuff that they need to get done. We'll have friends over, you know, maybe we'll watch a movie, we'll go bowling, you know, stuff like that.

Q: Do you put your own makeup every day?


Q: You do your own makeup every day?

MRS. OBAMA: I didn't today because it was special. (Laughter.) But most of the time I do. When I do something special, I have somebody do my makeup, but I do my makeup on my own.

Q: You pick your own clothes out?

MRS. OBAMA: I do. (Laughter.)

Q: What you got on today?

Q: That's cute.

MRS. OBAMA: This is just a little jacket, jacket and pants, nothing special --

Q: You, like -- because you -- (inaudible) -- like you could go shopping all the time? (Laughter.)

MRS. OBAMA: You know, the thing about -- what you realize is, especially as you get older, who you are doesn't necessarily change with the circumstances. I mean, the things that have changed me happened through careers and experiences throughout my life. And, you know, you don't change overnight, you know. Barack Obama is the same man that he was the day before, a year before, five years before he became the President of the United States.

Q: How did you get to where you are now?

MRS. OBAMA: You know, what I want you all to know is that -- and I say this a lot -- that there is no magic to being here, you know. When I introduce myself, I don't -- I try not to start with "the First Lady." I was joking when I came here.

But what I want people to know is that I -- my parents were working-class people. My father was a city worker. My mother stayed at home until I went to high school. I have an older brother. We didn't have a lot of money. We lived on the South Side of Chicago. I lived in the same house that my mother still lives in now, although she's with us, but same -- my same bedroom with the same stuff on the wall. I went to a public school in Chicago. I went to one of the better public schools, but my parents couldn't afford to send me to, you know, private schools.

And if I were to point to anything that was different, it was the fact that I had somebody around me who helped me understand early on that hard work, discipline and the choices that I made in life were really the only things that defined me. And I had a mother, for example, parents who told me, you don't worry about what anybody else thinks about you. You don't worry about the teacher that you think is not treating you fairly or what your friends are saying, you know; that all that matters is where you are and where you want to be, all right?

So what I always did was that I worked really hard. You know, I did focus in school. I did do my best. Getting good grades was always important to me, and it wasn't because my parents were hounding me or that they had the expectation. It was something that I wanted for myself. I wanted an A, you know, I wanted to be smart, I wanted to be the person who had the right answer. And I didn't care whether it was cool, because I remember there were kids around my neighborhood who would say, "Ooh, you talk funny, you talk like a white girl." I heard that growing up my whole life. I was like, I don't even know what that means, but you know what, I'm still getting my A.

You know, I've lived in a community where being smart wasn't necessarily the cool thing to be, you know. My brother was an athlete, he played basketball. He played in Europe, and he's now coaching Oregon State. But he went to Princeton to get an education; he went on to get his MBA. And he could have made choices about making basketball a bigger priority, but he always put education first. So when his career ran out of steam, and he had to create a job for himself, he could become an investment banker, which is what he did. Eventually he left to become a coach, but what we learned was making decisions that allowed us to keep as many options open for ourselves.

And those were choices that you made -- whether I got up and went to school on time. My mother said, "That's your choice. So if you don't do it -- don't do it for me, do it for yourself." And I would -- I heard that in my head every single day: I'm doing this for me, you know.

And I ran into people who doubted me, who didn't think I could do the things that they had expected. And I viewed that as a challenge, you know. I can tell you stories of teachers who would tell you, oh, you can't go to Princeton, or you're not smart enough to do this, or you can't make the honors society. I mean, I ran into people in my life who told me, you can't do it, you're not as smart as that person. And that never stopped me. That always made me push harder, because I was like, I'm going to prove you wrong.

Q: What was it like, Michelle, on the transition then from high school to college? And did any of your goals change once you got there?

MRS. OBAMA: Yes, the thing about college -- the thing that I would encourage you all to know is that college is still about exploring, you know. This whole notion that you should know what you want to be before you go to college is wrong. I mean, you won't really know what you want to be until you finish college and have worked a little bit. College is about growing and learning even more. The goal is that you want to get to college. You know, you don't have to know today that you want to be a doctor or a lawyer, you know.

But the transition for me was okay because the discipline was there, you know. When you go to college -- and I hope you all think about college, if not right now then at some point, because a college education is like a high school diploma these days -- it keeps the doors open for you. But what you have to understand with college is college is all about discipline. It goes back to the lessons I'm teaching my girls. It's like, if you can't get up by yourself and get to class, no one cares. No one's going to be --

Q: Your youngest one -- (inaudible)?


Q: The youngest one -- (inaudible)?

MRS. OBAMA: The --

Q: Your youngest one?

MRS. OBAMA: Yes, yes. She's doing -- she's got an alarm clock.

Q: So, what did you want to be when you got to college?

MRS. OBAMA: I thought I wanted to be a lawyer, because I went right to law school. But I practiced for a little bit and decided, I don't want to be a lawyer. So it wasn't until after I went to law school and practiced a little bit that I realized more and more that I wanted to do more things that had to deal with community service.

So that's one of the reasons why I say, you, you know, you want to have enough doors open so that as you learn more about yourself and the things that you care about, you will have not closed any doors. So you don't want to wake up at 28 and decide, you know what, I want to teach -- right? I love kids. But if you didn't go to college and you didn't finish and get a degree, you'll find that you'll be starting all over.

Now everything is open for you guys. You're just in high school. There's no decisions or things that you've done that change your life forever for the good or for the bad, right? If you've made some bad choices now, you can completely correct it. If you made great choices, you might trip a little bit, but this doesn't -- this period right here doesn't define you, right, completely. Right?

But the basics you have to have -- your willingness to work hard, and what I tell my kids is, ask for help. Never be embarrassed. I mean, this is when I'm having a conversation with my little one about, because she's a little stubborn, and she likes to be right all the time. And sometimes she will say she knows something that she doesn't even need to know. She's seven. I keep telling her, you're seven; you don't know how to multiply because you're seven. There are things she thinks she should know, and I'm just trying to teach her that you can learn anything if you ask for help. And never be embarrassed to ask for help.

Because that's all college is. College is being able to get up and discipline yourself and to get help when you need it and to work hard and not give up. Those are like basic concepts that carry you through life.

And college is not a hard thing. It isn't. You know, college is one of those things where you get four years to practice being an adult, right? If you get financial aid and you can get assistance on the financial piece, you're thinking about it, four years you're living in a community of other young people -- right, you know? All you have to do is study. That's it. You know, you'll have a handful of courses, you'll have five courses, right? Many of them you can pick on your own, right? And if you keep up with your homework and your studies and don't get behind, you have all this freedom to learn and to grow and to interact with other young people.

You don't get that after, you know. That's why I don't understand why kids want to rush and have kids and get married. It's like, it's nice if you're ready, but this is the time to explore. And that's why college is one of those things that I want young people to really want, you know, not view it as a burden, because it is really a privilege, and it just adds value, you know.

But you have to work now to get that, right? You have to take this part seriously enough to have the option for college, right? And even if you can't do it right away, you can do it later, right? You don't -- and college isn't something you have to do right away if you can't do it. You don't ever have to foreclose that option, right? But whatever you do, you've got to work hard at it, right? You've got to have some focus and some discipline, right?

Michelle Obama, Remarks at a Roundtable with the First Lady at a Women's History Month Event Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/320246

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