First lady Michelle Obama became emotional today while delivering a high school commencement address in Washington as she recalled the enormous impact that her parents had on her and her brother when they were growing up.
"I remember my parents sacrificing for us, pouring everything they had into us, being there for us, encouraging us to reach for a life they never knew," the first lady said during her remarks to graduates of The Academies at Anacostia, a charter school in one of the city's poorest neighborhoods
The first lady said she is where she is today, not because her parents had money or a college degree, but because they provided unconditional love and support.
"I remember my mom pushing me and my brother to do things she'd never done herself; things she'd been afraid to do herself," she said. "What I can remember is my father getting up every day and going to work at the water filtration plant, even after he was diagnosed with MS, even after it got hard for him to button his shirt, and to get up and walk."
The first lady's father, Fraser Robinson, passed away in 1991. Her mother, Marian Robinson, lives at the White House.
Michelle Obama, a graduate of Princeton and Harvard Law, urged the graduates to never scale back their goals and dreams because only they control their destiny.
She said that when she was growing up on Chicago's South Side, people told her that success wasn't meant for a girl like her.
"Growing up, there were plenty of times that I doubted my capabilities, and those doubts were fueled by a lot of people around me," she said. "Kids teasing me when I studied hard. Teachers telling me not to reach too high because my test scores weren't good enough."
Obama encouraged the graduates to "soak it up" and "do a little patting" on the back, because many of the students probably went through times when they were uncertain they would make it to this stage -- just she had in her childhood.
"I imagine that for some of you all, getting this far hasn't been easy. Perhaps there were those who wanted to write you off, maybe because of assumptions they made about you or your school or your community. But every day you're proving them wrong," she said. "You're proving that it doesn't matter what anyone else thinks about you or what you can achieve. The only thing that matters, rather, is what you think about yourself and what you're willing to do to achieve your goals. That's all that matters."
Last year the management of The Academies at Anacostia was transferred from the D.C public school system to Friendship Public Charter Schools. The school has seen a marked improvement in its graduation rate in just one year. Today 164 students (79 percent) received diplomas and more than 90 percent of the graduates have been accepted to colleges. There were fewer than 30 percent just last year.
Subtly acknowledging the fact that many of the graduates' families are struggling and have worries about how to pay for college, Mrs. Obama said she understands all too well because her parents had the same concerns when she and her brother were in high school.
"My parents didn't have the money to cover college tuition for me and my brother. Neither of my parents went to college or had any idea how to support us," she said.
But her advice to families was this: your kids don't need you to have a high paying job in order for them to success, but they do need love and support
"You don't have to have lived the kind of life you want your kids to live to help them excel," Obama said.
Obama has made youth engagement one of her signature issues in her first year and a half at the White House. She has opened up the White House to local students and held mentoring events across the city with celebrities and notable achievers.
Last spring, Obama had a rather candid conversation with a group of students at this same high school, telling them that when she was growing up, people told her, "You talk funny; you talk like a white girl."
Speaking to the students at Anacostia about how she achieved success in school and in her career, Obama said there was no magic to her story -- getting good grades was something that was important to her.
"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," the first lady said last May. "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."
Today she explained why reaching out to the nation's youth is a priority for her and President Obama.
"Listen, graduates, the reason that he and I invest so much of our time and energy in young people like you is because we see ourselves in each and every one of you," she said. "We are living proof for you that with the right support, it doesn't matter what circumstances you were born into, or how much money you have, or what color your skin is, if you're committed -- if you are committed to doing what it takes, anything is possible. It's up to you."
Obama also had a special message for those graduates who are not going on to college in the fall, a message that drew appreciative applause from the audience.
"You don't have to be on a college campus to educate yourself or to create new opportunities to grow, or to push yourself to think differently about the world," she said. "There are opportunities all over D.C. for you to enrich your lives and your minds."
For all the graduates and their families, Obama emphasized that part of growing up and being an adult is learning that life is a series of tradeoffs.
"If you want a career that pays a good salary, then you have to work hard. You've got to be on time; you've got to finish what you start; you have to always keep your word. If you want a life free from drama, then you can't hang out with people who thrive on drama," she said.