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Michelle Obama tells ‘real story of the South Side,’ honors Hadiya Pendleton at graduation

First lady Michelle Obama, a daughter of the South Side, said she wants “the real story” of her community to be known as she spoke at what would have been the high school graduation of murder victim Hadiya Pendleton.

The first lady spoke Tuesday to the 177 graduates of King College Prep High School, who sat near an empty chair that was covered with flowers and a pink feather boa and draped with a ribbon in Hadiya’s favorite color, purple.

Hadiya Pendleton’s seat is decorated in the colors she loved at the King College Prep graduation. | Ashlee Rezin/For Sun-Times Media
Hadiya Pendleton’s seat is decorated in the colors she loved at the King College Prep graduation. | Ashlee Rezin/For Sun-Times Media

That’s where 15-year-old Hadiya would have sat at the graduation ceremony. She was fatally shot at a park about a mile from the Obamas’ Kenwood home in 2013.

“I know that many of you are thinking about Hadiya right now and feeling the hole that she left in your hearts,” said Obama, who wore a black graduation gown.

But the focus of her speech wasn’t sadness and loss. Instead, the first lady was exuberant in focusing on the graduates’ futures despite the pre-conceived notion people might have about black kids raised on Chicago’s South Side.

“I’m here tonight because I want people across this country to know that story, the real story of the South Side — the story of that quiet majority of good folks, families like mine and young people like you who face real challenges, but make good choices every single day,” she said.

The commencement address Tuesday followed her remarks last month at Tuskegee University in Alabama, one of the nation’s best-known historically black schools, where she was unusually candid as she talked about race and the pressures of being the first black first lady. Although more reserved Tuesday, the speech followed that theme as she told the graduates: “Today you join our team as we fight to get out the truth about our communities.”

Obama returned to her hometown to deliver the 25-minute long speech to more than 2,500 people at Chicago State University’s Emil and Patricia Jones Convocation Center.

King College Prep landed the first lady as a graduation speaker by winning a video contest encouraging students to complete the “FAFSA” form — the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, a critical first step to securing financial assistance.

But Obama has another connection to King College Prep and the students she spoke to Tuesday.

They were Hadiya’s classmates.

Hadiya’s parents were in the crowd and accepted their daughter’s cap and gown and her class ring. Her name was listed in the program as a member of the class of 2015.

Peter Helberg, of Jostens, presents Hadiya Pendleton’s family, Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton, Nathaniel Pendleton and Nathaniel Pendleton Jr., with a cap and gown and class ring in honor of the slain 15-year-old. | Ashlee Rezin/For Sun-Times Media
Peter Helberg, of Jostens, presents Hadiya Pendleton’s family, Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton, Nathaniel Pendleton and Nathaniel Pendleton Jr., with a cap and gown and class ring in honor of the slain 15-year-old. | Ashlee Rezin/For Sun-Times Media

Hadiya’s mother, Cleopatra Pendleton, wiped tears from her eyes when a class video showed pictures of her daughter and her beaming smile.

After the ceremony, she said she was “at a loss for words” but was touched by Obama’s presence and the remembrance of her beloved daughter.

Obama had previously sat among some of those kids and their families and comforted Pendleton at her daughter’s funeral.

“So maybe you’ve been tested a lot more, and a lot earlier in life than many other young people. Maybe you have more scars than they do. Maybe you have days when you feel more tired than someone your age should ever really feel,” Obama said. “But graduates, tonight, I want you to understand that every scar that you have is a reminder not just that you got hurt — but that you survived.”

Obama received applause when she told the crowd that news stories about their community are not often positive and “only make headlines when something tragic happens,” she said to loud cheers.

And she shared a personal tale of people asking her mother how she “managed” to raise her kids, Michelle and Craig Robinson, in South Shore.

“My mom looks at these folks like they’re crazy, and she says, ‘Michelle and Craig are nothing special. There are millions of Craigs and Michelles out there, and I did the same thing that all those other parents did – I loved them, I believed in them, and I didn’t take any nonsense from them,’ ” Obama said.

Obama told the teens she’s so proud of them — but not surprised by their accomplishments. All of the students who graduated Tuesday have been accepted to college, according to a Chicago Public Schools spokeswoman.

She went on to say, “I know the struggles many of you face: how you walk the long way home to avoid the gangs; how you fight to concentrate on your schoolwork when there’s too much noise at home; how you keep it together when your family’s having a hard time making ends meet.

“But more importantly, I also know the strengths of this community. I know the families on the South Side – and while they may come in all different shapes and sizes, most families here are tight, bound together by the kind of love that gets stronger when it’s tested.”

There was lots of cheering — especially when Obama unveiled a surprise.

The cast of the hit show “Scandal,” which the kids parodied in their winning FAFSA video, sent a message of congratulations. Actress Kerry Washington told the students: “Keep working hard!”

Obama also spoke of acclaimed South Siders including Lorraine Hansberry and Richard Wright and her own parents.

She told the students wherever they go next, they will “encounter people who doubt your very existence.”

And she ended her speech by saying: “Graduates, starting today, it is your job to make sure that no one is ever again surprised by who we are and where we come from.”

Students said the speech was inspirational. Taven Morrow, 16, said the message she took from the first lady is “to stay strong.”

Dwight Hunter, 18, said he was touched that Obama came back to their community after attending Hadiya’s funeral years ago.

“She actually cares about the youth,” he said.

As for the remembrance of their slain classmate, graduates said it was emotional.

Sydni Martin, 18, said: “I know she was watching us and she was so proud.”

Contributing: Lynn Sweet