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Obama, in surprise appearance, gives 105,000 CPS students free digital copies of ‘A Promised Land’

The 15-minute appearance marked the former president’s latest stop on his busy media blitz to promote the long-awaited, 768-page memoir.

Barack Obama attended a livestreamed assembly with CPS high school students Monday.

High school students and teachers at Chicago Public Schools received an email Monday morning that didn’t tell them exactly who would be at their virtual assembly that afternoon but gave some strong hints: The speaker had “strong ties to Chicago,” “millions of Twitter followers” and “made history multiple times throughout their career.”

Hours later, those who tuned in to the livestreamed assembly were greeted by former President Barack Obama, who surprised CPS’ 105,000 high schoolers and thousands of teachers with free digital copies of his new memoir, “A Promised Land.”

The 15-minute appearance marked Obama’s latest stop on his busy media blitz to promote the long-awaited, 768-page book, which will be available to students and teachers in e-book and audiobook formats.

“I wrote this book with you in mind,” Obama told the star-struck students, some of which put their hands on their mouths and couldn’t stop smiling. “I want young people to understand that the ability for you to have an impact on this world — to make a difference, to improve your communities, to improve schools, to make it possible for people to have health care, to create better jobs, to clean up our environment — that you have that power in you.

“Some of you have homework, and you gotta do your homework first,” Obama said. “And obviously during Thanksgiving break and during Christmas break, you’re going to want to spend some time with family and just celebrate and relax. But if some of you are interested during that period in maybe getting a little bit of a sense to what led me to get into government and politics and public service ... then this is a chance for you to have access to that without having to pay.”

Former President Barack Obama speaks to CPS students during a virtual assembly Monday.
Former President Barack Obama speaks to CPS students during a virtual assembly Monday.
Screenshot/Chicago Public Schools

Obama also praised CPS students for following through with their schoolwork during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I just wanted to say how proud I am of all of you for continuing your efforts, your studies, your focus, your commitment to your education in the midst of, let’s face it, a pretty tough situation,” the former president said, acknowledging the health and financial struggles that many students’ families are going through.

Obama said he would host a follow-up conversation about his book with CPS students after the new year, an event the district said would be moderated by ABC7 Windy City Live host Val Warner.

CPS CEO Janice Jackson, who recently has been pegged as a potential education secretary nominee in President-elect Joe Biden’s administration, joined Obama in making the announcement. She said the former president is a “believer that everyday, normal people can make a difference.”

Former first lady Michelle Obama, a CPS graduate, made a similar stop at her alma mater Whitney Young during her book tour in fall 2018. She spoke to 20 girls at the Near West Side school about how Whitney Young exposed her to life outside her South Shore community. The students at that discussion received free physical copies of the book and tickets to the first lady’s book event at the United Center a few days later.