To all the varied (and unpaid) jobs of the first lady of the United States, Michelle Obama has lately added cheerleader-in-chief. On Thursday, she employed her pep-rally skills to exhort students at Washington, D.C.-area high schools that they, too, can achieve their highest dreams.
Obama and a clutch of high-profile female pals — entertainers, athletes, a former astronaut, a four-star general — fanned out to 11 schools to rally groups of students as part of the celebration of Women's History Month.
"Our job is simple," Obama said. "Just be open, be honest, be real, be clear, and have fun."
Obama herself went to Washington's struggling Anacostia High School. The waiting students hadn't been told the identity of their guest, and there was an audible gasp when she walked in.
"Someone in your school thought you had a lot of potential," she told the 10 girls and three boys. "Each of you have struggled with something, but you've overcome it, you've pushed to the next level. I didn't want to talk to kids who had already arrived, I wanted to talk to kids who are pushing to get to the next place."
It has been two months since Barack Obama took office, and in that time Michelle Obama has busied herself in public by reaching out to the Washington community in a way the most recent occupants of the White House never did. In near-daily visits, she has met with federal employees, mixed with students at local schools and pitched in at community organizations. Her invariable message: You're doing a great job, thanks for all your help, keep up the good work.
On Thursday morning, she gathered her female posse at the White House for refreshments and instructed them to go forth and be encouraging.
"This was one of my dreams … gathering an amazing group of women together, and going out and talking to young girls around this country," Obama told the women, including actresses Fran Drescher and Phylicia Rashad; singers Alicia Keys and Sheryl Crow; astronaut Mae Jemison; and U.S. Army Gen. Ann Dunwoody.
"Our job is share our stories, to make these kids understand that where we stand today is not an impossibility ," Obama said. "Many of us have forged a path to some amazing things, and we want to share that with these young people."
And share they did. Drescher, star of the TV sit-com The Nanny and possessor of an unforgettable honk of a voice, told self-deprecating jokes, laughed her trademark braying laugh and explained how she overcame sexual assault, cancer and self-doubt. She spoke, with Broadway actress Sarah Jones, to 68 students at racially diverse Mount Vernon High School in Virginia's Fairfax County near George Washington's estate.
"Carpe diem! That's Latin for 'seize the day,' " exclaimed Drescher, an early Obama supporter who is considering running for Hillary Rodham Clinton's former seat in the U.S. Senate. "In this country, it doesn't matter where you start; the only thing that matters in where you end up is you."
Crow and Jemison talked to 90 students at Woodrow Wilson Senior High in one of the most affluent, educated corners of the national capital. Crow, Grammy winner and cancer survivor, said that through every zigzag of her career, she always knew she could rely on music to help her feel good about herself.
"You have to learn to find your own voice," Crow said. "Conviction is what keeps you going. Stay your course."
Jemison, the first African-American woman in space, considered a variety of other fields as career choices and became a biomedical entrepreneur after her 1992 flight on the shuttle Endeavor. "People always want to narrow you down," she said. "Don't listen. Do all the things that make you feel good about yourself, that excite your mind."
Rashad and Olympic gold-medal gymnast Dominique Dawes addressed 20 students at all-girls Catholic school Holy Cross in Garrett Park, Md., a suburb of Washington. Contrary to popular misconception, Rashad told the students, neither the arts nor artists are elitist, and artistic expression is as much rooted in discipline and intellect as in raw talent. Students today are bright and capable, she said later, but they still can benefit from encounters with women of achievement.
"I don't think it's so much a pep talk as it is sharing," she said.
After the school events, the women and dozens of other invited students were to have dinner at the White House with Obama and female members of the Obama administration. The first lady reiterated that she hoped to remind students that the White House is not that far away.
"We're close, this isn't a distant relationship," she said. "They can imagine the people who live here and what goes on here, and that there's a close connection between their lives and ours."
Contributing: Cathy Lynn Grossman and Greg Toppo