Remarks by the First Lady in a Discussion with Students at South High School in Denver, Colorado
MRS. OBAMA: Hi! So what's going on? (Laughter.) It's good to be here. I'm a little out of breath, I had to walk up stairs -- (laughter) -- you get old, stairs are hard. (Laughter.)
Well, I am thrilled to be here -- along with the friends that I bring with the cameras and the lights. But we are thrilled to be here at Denver South. Very cool school, right?
STUDENTS: Yes! (Applause.)
MRS. OBAMA: Very cool. Because there are so -- there are, like, over 1,500 of you here at this school and there are only 30 of you who have the fortune -- depends on what you feel after the end of this, the privilege -- of being here. So I got on the intercom and addressed your classmates just to tell them we were thinking about them. And just a few things that I said, and your principal helped to give me a little guidance, is: Be at school. Work hard. And don't let anybody doubt you.
And I'm sure that's something that you hear all the time from your parents and your teachers and your guardians and the people in your lives who care about you. But they're right. I know you hate to admit it, but they're right. So that was the message that I gave to everyone.
But I am -- I've come here today to Denver as part of a mentoring initiative that we started when we first got to the White House. And we're doing it primarily with young girls, but the West Wing -- the President's office -- is going to start doing one with young men, as well. And part of the reason why doing something like this was so important to me was because mentoring was key to my success and being -- I've always tried to make being acceptable to young people a huge part of my own career development, because there were people who were there for me all along the way.
And it started with my parents, but there was always a teacher, a neighbor, a coach, somebody in my life that took an extra sort of interest and helped to tell me that I could do it. And it doesn't have to be the First Lady of the United States. It can be somebody immediately in your life. But as the First Lady, I think I can still be that to many kids, directly and indirectly.
So coming to Denver, going to other cities around the country is a part of that initiative. And I try to stop at a school like this and spend some time with each of you. So that's one of the reasons why I'm here.
But I'm going to stop talking because I want to spend time with you, answering any questions that you have and these guys will be gone soon -- they're going to hang around for a little bit, but usually, just so that you know, they loosen up a lot when you leave. So try to block them out and ask away.
So who's got a question? You. (Laughter.)
Q: Our school is glad to have you --
MRS. OBAMA: First tell me your name. I can see your --
Q: My name is Linda Jimenez.
MRS. OBAMA: And tell me what you do here.
Q: Well, I'm the student body president --
MRS. OBAMA: Oh, that's all. (Laughter.)
Q: Well, I do a lot of activities, I play chess and ROTC -- do you know ROTC?
MRS. OBAMA: I gathered, yes. I know ROTC. What year are you?
Q: I'm a senior.
MRS. OBAMA: A senior, wow. Way to go. Congratulations.
Q: Thank you.
MRS. OBAMA: So what's your question?
Q: Well, my question is about standardized testing. So there's a federal mandate that states every student in Colorado must take the CSAP. Now, our school is very diverse and many students do not speak English, although versed in two different languages, and they are forced to take this step. And our school gets funding on how well students do on the test. And of course, because they do not speak English they cannot understand the test and they do not do well.
I just want to ask, what are your feelings on standardized testing? Is it a fair way to grade high schools and schools all over the country?
MRS. OBAMA: Well, that's a good question. And it's an interesting question for me because when I was growing up I was never a great standardized test-taker. So from a personal level, I would always get nervous and feel a great deal of anxiety over test-taking. So it was always a point of frustration for me personally, and I didn't speak a second language. It was just some people are really good test-takers and some aren't.
So without sort of commenting, because the truth is the standardized tests are there. So we can ask whether it's fair or not; they're part of the system. And I think what this administration is working on is making sure that more schools have the resources they need to prepare all students to be able to compete in these tests.
One thing that I didn't realize when I was growing up -- because I went to a public school and my parents hadn't gone to college -- was I didn't even realize that you could prepare for these tests, that there were prep courses and things like that. Until I went to Princeton I didn't realize that there were kids who were prepping for these tests.
So there's a lot of work that we can do to balance out some of the inequities and to inform kids and to give them the legs up that they need. But what I would tell you -- and this is something that I learned for myself -- was that I had to learn not to let just a test score define me. Because if I relied solely on my test score -- and this is just personal, because all you have is control over how you handle the test, no matter where you are -- but if I had solely made a decision on what schools I was going to apply to just on my test scores, my test scores said, there's no reason you should have applied to Princeton or you would get in or you would be able to do well at Princeton. That's what my test scores said.
My grades, on the other hand, and everything else that I had invested in said just the opposite. I was a straight-A student. I was an honors student. I was involved in student government. I was active and I was engaged. And fortunately, the universities in this country recognize that there's more to being a good student than a test score. So fortunately for me, Princeton looked at the big picture. They didn't just look at my test scores -- they looked at my grades, they looked at my teacher recommendations, they looked at my extra-curricular activities, they looked at how well I could write in my personal essays.
So my message to each of you is you've got to prepare for the tests, take them seriously because they are part of the measures, they're part of the system. But don't let these tests defeat you. Don't let them define you. Move through them. And the thing that you have the most control over are your grades -- right? Really. Fundamentally, the difference between an A and a B oftentimes is in your own hands. The difference between whether you understand a subject because you're in class and you're listening -- that's the power that you have. So if you use what you have and you make the most of the opportunities that you have control over, then things like test scores don't have to completely throw you off.
So there are two ways to look at it. You can fight the tests or you can work with it and turn them into an advantage. But ultimately, you've got to be good students. You've got to be able to -- you've got to be hard workers. And that's all in here. And no one can define that for you or measure you out of that. And if all of you are doing that and doing the best that you can no matter what the results on the test scores are, you feel -- you can feel a sense of confidence and self-assuredness that you did the best that you can do. That's my advice.
Q: Thank you.
MRS. OBAMA: Thank you. More questions.
Q: I have a question.
MRS. OBAMA: Yes!
Q: You pretty much answered my first question, but my second question is, what are some good attributes of a good mentor? Like, what are some ways you can be a good mentor?
MRS. OBAMA: Are you asking for -- because you want to identify measures, or are you seeing yourself as a mentor? Because I think there's a little bit of both.
Q: Yes, both. Yes.
MRS. OBAMA: You know, for me, mentors are everywhere. So as I said in the beginning, you know, a mentor doesn't have to have a certain degree or a certain education or a certain position. Mentors are in your own life, whether it's your pastor or your parent or your neighbor. You really want to find people who are open to inviting you into their world.
And I think the biggest thing to remember is that you have to ask for help and be open to getting the help.
So when I was younger -- and I didn't really do this until I was in law school, really -- is that I began to seek mentors out, you know, because a mentor -- somebody who is going to be your mentor may not ever walk into your life and say, "You know what? I'm going to help you out." But there are millions of people, thousands of people in your lives if you pull them aside and ask for their help they would be beyond grateful to lend you a hand.
So the first step is getting that confidence to ask for the help. And don't wait, like me, until you're in law school to do it. You can start practicing that now in high school. So seek out a teacher, a counselor here. Each of you should think about that. It's like, who do I like, who's interesting, who's doing what I think I'd like to do. And approach them. And do it in a serious way, so that you show them that you're committed to sitting down. Maybe you want to meet with them once a week; maybe you want to take them out to lunch or find out what their interests are.
But when somebody sees that you're interested in being mentored, they will latch on like nothing else. And I think the same thing is true for you guys particularly in high school, is that you're never too young to be a mentor to somebody younger than you. So start early. You get what you give.
And if there are young people in your lives now -- whether they're siblings or cousins or people in your community and programs outside of school and you see some kid struggling or someone sitting on the sidelines, don't ever think that you're too -- that you're not ready to be a mentor, because oftentimes my girls, for example, would be more enthusiastic to talk to you than to me. (Laughter.) Because you're young and seem really cool -- and I'm not to them. And that's how young kids are, they don't want to be mentored by grandma, they want to be mentored by you all. They want to know what's in your world because you're the next step to who they want to be. So you can start practicing that now; it's never too soon.
Q: What is one of the most difficult things of being First Lady?
MRS. OBAMA: The most difficult things of being the First Lady? Wow. There are a lot of advantages. I mean, let me begin by saying that. I came into this position having absolutely no idea what to expect. But I can say that it has been an honor and a privilege to serve in this role, and I mean that from the bottom of my heart. From the moment we started campaigning, the ability to travel around the country and to meet people -- whether they were voting for my husband or not -- who were open and engaged and thoughtful and caring and patriotic and loyal, you're just reminded that this is a really solid country, doing really good things.
So over the course of the campaign I got really pumped out about wanting to do my very best in whatever way for this country -- for kids, for military families, for mothers struggling. It's just, I get pumped up to try to make sure that I'm working my hardest and that I'm not taking anything for granted.
But with that, you know, comes the challenge of having a role that's very public and raising kids and making sure that my girls don't get lost in all of this -- because they're young and they didn't make this choice. So the President and I are always balancing the role that we play in public with making sure that home is home and that we're present and accounted for, for our kids -- not as Michelle and Barack Obama, but as mom and dad. And that means that on a day like this, I leave in the morning, I come back before they go to bed. That means when they have an event it takes precedent over everything -- whether it's a school play or a soccer game -- they know if I can be there, one of us, we will be there, and we will be there not signing autographs or taking pictures, but being mom and dad. I do it by making sure that I know what my kids' homework is and that I'm asking them questions, and I know who their teachers are, and I know who their friends are, and they still feel like they have a life.
So striking that balance sometimes is tough. And because I care so much about my kids, I want to make sure that they come out of this as whole as possible. So you're always struggling with making sure that you're doing right by the country, but you're also doing right by your kids.
Michelle Obama, Remarks by the First Lady in a Discussion with Students at South High School in Denver, Colorado Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/320207