Michelle Obama’s amaz­ing story is hers, not ours

Hartford Courant (Sunday) - - Ct Opinion - By Dahleen Glan­ton

The story of a young South Side girl who be­came Michelle Obama is amaz­ing. But we must re­mem­ber that it is her story, not ev­ery­one’s.

Cer­tainly, when read­ing her new mem­oir, “Be­com­ing,” most of us can find some­thing that is fa­mil­iar. For me, it was her story of tak­ing pi­ano les­sons as a child on an old up­right with un­even col­ored keys and a chipped mid­dle C.

But the mere fact that Obama and I grew up with ac­cess to a pi­ano sets us apart from many young peo­ple who are des­per­ately try­ing to write their own sto­ries in to­day’s dif­fi­cult times.

Per­haps Obama’s strong­est as­set came sim­ply by chance: She was raised by a lov­ing mom and dad who saw her po­ten­tial even when she doubted her­self. They en­cour­aged her to be the best at what­ever she did. Suc­cess was ex­pected of her.

Church choir di­rec­tors, city la­bor­ers, car­pen­ters and re­tired Pull­man porters were among the work­ing-class peo­ple who lived in her midst. In that way, though lack­ing many of the lux­u­ries money could bring, Obama was priv­i­leged. And so was I.

Wouldn’t it be great if ev­ery­one had a child­hood like that? Wouldn’t it be won­der­ful if ev­ery girl and boy grew up to tell an amaz­ing story like hers?

The re­al­ity, though, is that too many will not. And it won’t be be­cause they weren’t smart enough or be­cause they didn’t dream big enough. It will be be­cause life, as it too of­ten does, gets in the way.

It will be be­cause no one be­lieved in them or en­cour­aged them to be­lieve in them­selves. It will be be­cause they never dreamed it was pos­si­ble to dream big­ger, and be­cause they never knew that big dreams are catch­able if pur­sued hard enough.

Their sto­ries might pale be­cause the path to suc­cess is un­even and shaky and of­ten laden with bar­ri­ers de­signed to keep some of us from get­ting through. Many of our chil­dren never gain the skills re­quired to keep forg­ing ahead or the sup­port needed to help them carry the load.

Dur­ing her re­cent book launch in Chicago, I lis­tened to ev­ery word, ea­gerly grasp­ing at tid­bits that seemed to con­nect my life with hers. I re­lated to the story about the high school coun­selor who tried to dis­cour­age her from ap­ply­ing to Yale. I, too, had a teacher who didn’t think I was good enough to be on the school’s news­pa­per staff.

All the while, though, I couldn’t stop think­ing about a young woman named Ta’taleisha Jones and young man named Thomas Cun­ning­ham. They were among a small group of stu­dents who met with the then-first lady dur­ing a visit to Harper High School in the West En­gle­wood neigh­bor­hood in 2013 and brought her to tears with their sto­ries.

In the years af­ter, I checked in with them oc­ca­sion­ally to see how their lives were go­ing. Both were grow­ing up in dan­ger­ous and im­pov­er­ished sec­tions of En­gle­wood. Their fu­tures were un­cer­tain, their daily lives filled with de­tours.

Obama had tried to con­vince them that there wasn’t much dis­tance be­tween her child­hood and theirs and that they could over­come ob­sta­cles just as she had.

But the teenagers felt dis­con­nected with the African-Amer­i­can woman who had grown up on the South Side and now lived in the White House. They weren’t sure that she un­der­stood how dif­fer­ent things were for them, how much more dif­fi­cult it was to be their best, as she had asked of them.

Jones, who was then 16, told Obama so. But as time went on, she told me last week, she be­gan to see the pos­si­bil­i­ties.

Now, as she is about to turn 22, Jones said that brief en­counter with Obama changed her life. While things weren’t al­ways good at home — the fam­ily has moved three times in the last three years — she used Obama’s wis­dom as a road map to achieve more than she once thought she de­served.

“I look at things dif­fer­ently now,” she told me. “Now I think about how things im­pact my life. I sit and think about stuff be­fore I do it. I be­came a bet­ter per­son from sit­ting down with her.”

Jones grad­u­ated with a 3.9 grade-point av­er­age and was salu­ta­to­rian of her class. She’s com­plet­ing her last year at Mal­colm X Col­lege and plans to en­roll in nurs­ing school next year.

But ev­ery stu­dent’s story isn’t that pos­i­tive.

Obama took a spe­cial in­ter­est in Cun­ning­ham, and even wrote a note con­grat­u­lat­ing him on his grad­u­a­tion in

2014.

Dur­ing the school meet­ing, she asked him to promise her that he would stop play­ing dice and con­cen­trate on his school work. But he was hes­i­tant.

“I can’t even promise you that,” he said. With­out a job or fam­ily sup­port, Cun­ning­ham ex­plained, shoot­ing dice was his only means of mak­ing money.

He did try for a while, though. But liv­ing with his 84-year-old grand­mother, his home life was too un­sta­ble. He saw his close friend get shot to death, and gun­men were af­ter him for tes­ti­fy­ing at the trial. He was ac­cepted into Kennedy King Col­lege af­ter grad­u­a­tion, but he never en­rolled.

Life was just too chaotic to think about the fu­ture, but he ap­pre­ci­ated that Obama had tried to help him look ahead.

I couldn’t talk with him last week. He’s await­ing trial on drug and gun charges.

At 23, his story is still be­ing writ­ten. We have yet to see who he will be­come.

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