First Lady Michelle Obama visits Washington community center. Getting to know Washington, week three.

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The First Lady made her first solo trip into the neighborhood. She visited Mary’s Center a community health organization in Adam’s Morgan. The most interesting part of the visit came in the last fifteen minutes of the nearly hour-long visit. She sat with a group of 9 teenagers ages 16-18 who attend after-school programs at the center. A transcript will be available, but here’s the best part. It came in response to the fifth and final question from one of the students who asked: “Why did you want to come out and meet us?”

“This is the best part of my day, short of being with my own kids. I was raised to believe that when you get you give back…We’ve been visitors but now we live here. This is our community now. We were taught you have to get to know your community you’re in, and you have to be a part of that community and you have to get to know it in order to be actively engaged in it. D.C. is our community now and it’s our home. Barack is real busy right now so I figured I’ve got the time on my hands and while the kids are in school, I figured I would come out and hear about programs and meet students.” She described all of this as if the man she called Barack were an ambitious accountant, not the man who on the previous evening had given the prime time press conference amid the fancy chandeliers.

“I was somewhat where you are. I didn’t come to this position with a lot of wealth and a lot of resources. I think it’s real important for young kids, particularly kids who come form communities without resources to see me. Not the First Lady but to see that there is no magic to me sitting here. There are no miracles that happen. There is no magic dust that was sprinkled on my head or Barack’s head. We were kids much like you who figured out one day that our fate was in our own hands. We made decisions to listen to our parents and work hard, and work even harder when somebody doubted us. When somebody told me I couldn’t do something, that gave me a greater challenge to prove them wrong. …Every little challenge like that and every little success I gained more confidence and life just sort of opened up. So I feel like it’s an obligation for me to share that with you.”

Before leaving, the First Lady posed for photographs and signed a poster for the center. She turned to the kids and said “Always think about where you came from and what you’re going to give back.” The kids, who were a slightly quiet bunch, didn’t immediately respond. “Sound right?” She asked them. They all then said yes.

The First Lady’s next most newsworthy response came to the previous student question (The fourth of five questions). He asked what could be done to improve safety in the community. Recently a homeless man had died on the street and people had just walked by.

After making some general remarks, the First Lady gave her own rendition of her husband’s call for personal responsibility:

“The problem you laid out has two components. One of it is resources…the criminal justice system and law enforcement… but the other piece of it that my husband talks a lot about… there’s the government piece but there’s also the self-responsibility piece and that’s a message that we have to talk about…No matter what you do you can’t pass a law that makes somebody do the right thing. You can’t pass a law that makes a parent read to their child. You can’t pass a law that says treat your neighbor with respect and decency. You can’t pass laws like that. That comes from all of us deciding in our own communities and in our individual lives and our families who we are going to be. That’s the difference between being a kid and an adult. It’s not the money you make or the degree that you have but it’s the choice that you make to be active and involved and a responsible citizen and no president can mandate that no mayor can mandate that it comes from us our faith our belief in one another.”

“Hopefully that’s something you all are talking about in programs like this. It’s not just what I need and who is going to give it to me, but what can I do? What kind of citizen am I going to be? What kind of parent am I going to be? What kind of neighbor am I going to be? And what am I going to do the next time a crime is committed am I going to walk by? Do I call the police? Do I get involved? That is all part of the conversation we need to have as a society.”

“It’s choices we make as well as the laws that are made. That’s why staying in school is important….Even if Barack Obama could snap his fingers and all the resources existed in the world and every school had education and every parent had healthcare that still doesn’t determine whether you’re going to be a good person.”

Here are the other questions and rough transcription

The first question posed by the teenagers was about how it feels to be First Lady.

“I’m excited and honored …There is a lot of work to be done in the country and I think my husband is a good man for the job and If I can help him whether it’s learning more about centers like Mary’s Center…so that we can help him think better about how to shape policy. But I feel like I have a privilege to come out and hear about the programs and meet young people and talk … it’s one of the best jobs I’ve ever had.”

The second question was about plans to help kids going to college. “Most recently in the stimulus package that you hear so much talk about, one of the many things is making sure that kids from all communities who are headed to college… have the resources they need so that when the economy struggles we don’t have to lay off teachers because states don’t have the money they need.” She also talked about schools that are falling apart that would be helped by the Stimulus bill.

“Coming from public schools because I’m a graduate of public schools. I grew up in Chicago on the south side. My parents didn’t have the kind of resources so I know how important it is to have the kind of resources we need to make sure that every child regardless of where they live..have the right to good resources and a chance to go to college.”

After answering the second question, the kids seemed to run out of questions so the First Lady prompted them. “What would you tell the nation, because they’re all listening. These cameras represent some ears out there.” she said noting the cameras and reporters in the room. “What would you tell the president, because I might talk to him tonight.”

She was then asked about families split up by immigration policies. Mrs. Obama talked about the need for immigration reform and that the stories of kids could help. “People see faces of these families through you so it’s not just an abstract story.”

Michelle Obama’s tour of Mary’s Center started at 2:45. After arriving, she met for 20 minutes with administrators and patients of the community health center which provides cradle to grave health services as well as a number of additional community services like after-school programs for teens and family social services. Established in 1988 for Latino women, the center now serves over 14,000 patients from nearly 40 countries.

The press was not present for Mrs. Obama’s first meeting, but according to press secretary Katie McCormick Lelyveld, Mrs. Obama heard an overview about the center and asked some questions about its programs.

At 3:00 she entered the windowless classroom where a semi-circle of nine children ages 3-5 sat with four teachers. They were there to hear the First Lady read “Brown Bear Brown Bear What Do You See.”

“What’s going on,” asked the First Lady when she entered the room. “Hello Little People.”

“My name is Michelle and I’m married to the President of the United States. Do you know his name?”

“Barack Obama,” said a young girl named Anise, who became the star of the show.

The First Lady moved to the purple rug from the chair set out for her to get closer to the kids. She asked each child their name, getting down to their level. Two young boys were reluctant to interact. One, David, was playing with cars. “What about you with the cars?” she said in mock irritation. “Hey? You with the cars?” He didn’t respond. “You have cars everywhere,” she said grabbing his shoes which appeared to have a car on them.

“How do you say brown?” she asked. “Would you teach me something? How do you say Brown in Spanish?”

“Brown Bear,” yelled one child. The First Lady moved on.

When she mentioned her little girls Anise yelled out: “I know her name! Sasha”

“Do you know how many times I have read this book,” asked the First Lady? She started to read, often without looking at the simple words, proving that she had perhaps read it “a million times as she claimed” The kids read along with her through pictures of a yellow duck, a blue horse and when it came time for the purple cat, she said “meow” and so did the kids. Next, she turned the page to the white dog. “Were are my dogs at?” she asked, taking the standard First Lady’s grammatical license. Everyone barked.

When Mrs. Obama got to the fish there was some confusion about the color. Was it gold or orange. She surveyed the crowd. “Lets make a team decision.” A child insisted it was orange.

“Okay let’s call it orange,” she said. “You made a compelling case.”

The second to last picture in the book is of a teacher. “Where are the teachers in the room,” she asked.

“You,” said one child.

There was milling and she was asked where she lived.

“I don’t live too far away, I live up the street.”

Mrs. Obama was handed another book. She passed because the book was in Spanish.

“You don’t know Spanish?” asked a child.

“No and it’s ridiculous,” she responded.

Then the First Lady called for hugs. Most of the children complied. The cameras went nuts. Some were reluctant.

‘More, more, more, whatcha leaving me hanging?” She asked. At this point it became a group hug. “Oh delicious. Thank you.”

She left to a chorus of “adios”

Mrs. Obama wore gray trousers and a cream colored sweater set which tied in a bow at the neck. Also at the neck were two emerald colored pieces of bow shaped sparkly jewelry. For those keeping a complete list: she wore flats.

John Dickerson

Slate Magazine

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