Venkata: What Michelle Obama means

Much more than I realized at the time.

by Uma Venkata

If you haven’t noticed already, take the time to look and you will see that Michelle Obama’s new memoir “Becoming” has renewed a quiet wave of emotion for the former first lady. I would say there’s something about her personality that does it, but it’s not just one thing, it’s everything.

Obama has not only flown to the highest echelons of education. She has carried herself with grace and unfailing kindness through eight years of marriage in a trying presidency under a harsh limelight.

Obama went to a Whitney Young Magnet High School in Chicago and graduated in 1981. About 30 years later, I went there for high school during the Barack Obama administration. And then this Monday, Michelle Obama visited Whitney Young, which I missed by about three years.

The secret was already out about Obama when I attended high school — there was a bulletin board encased in glass with her school photos, and a cardboard cutout of her (and her beautiful smile) in our main office. There were defunct clocks on the walls that we joked were Obama-era. Our school was, and I’m sure still is, a bit of a day-to-day fan base.

Yet I didn’t fully grasp the importance of what Obama means to women everywhere, especially young women like myself from the city and women of color, until I came to the University of Minnesota. The differences in culture and demographics between here and Chicago were not unnoticeable. The University campus can be a bit of a fishbowl in certain respects, but it did truly surprise me that racial and socioeconomic diversity are not something to take for granted. 

What Obama and her husband have gone through, for the ultimate aim of serving their country, is no small feat. The Obamas have withstood years of galling accusations, most notably the birther conspiracy for Barack Obama. And what we don’t see is sometimes the most important. Diplomacy and calmness have governed their behavior and there has been no shouting match.

Michelle Obama inspires a kind of feeling I haven’t been able to put my finger on until now, and I think it’s gratitude. I am so grateful someone like her would take the time to be such a perfect role model for someone like me. When I was 15 years old and focused on other, sillier things, I never really thought twice about what Obama does for people like me, because that was just the way it was. I’m older now and I have seen more of the world. It turns out a person like her is the kind of person who makes the world a better place.