First lady Michelle Obama gives Anacostia high school commencement speech

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 12, 2010; B04

First lady Michelle Obama has given commencement addresses before, but none carried the resonance of her speech Friday morning to the Class of 2010 from the Academies at Anacostia.

From the moment she settled into the East Wing of the White House, Obama has talked about building a bridge between rich and poor, privileged and needy, insiders and outsiders. The simple decision to speak to the Anacostia high school's 158 graduates -- some of whom cleared the daunting hurdles of extreme poverty or teenage pregnancy in order to wear the school's cobalt-blue cap and gown -- made those idealistic visions a little more real.

"Maybe you feel like your destiny was written the day you were born, and you ought to just rein in your hopes and scale back your dreams. But if any of you are thinking that way, I'm here to tell you, stop it. Don't do that," Obama said. "Don't ever scale back your dreams. And don't ever set limits on what you can achieve. And don't think for one single moment that your destiny is out of your hands, because no one's in control of your destiny but you."

Each of the students had already overcome at least one obstacle to their dreams: their own school. It has been struggling to shed its reputation as one of the worst schools in the city -- one wrestling with poor test scores, spotty attendance, dismal graduation rates and violence. In 2009, only about 50 percent of students graduated. Only 17 percent of the students were proficient in math and 18 percent in reading.

In September, D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee transferred management of Anacostia High School to Friendship Public Charter Schools in the hopes that the nonprofit group would do what the city could not. The school, renamed in the transfer, was wholly restructured, divided into four academies and given a staff overhaul. This year, 79 percent of the students received their diplomas. And of those, 95 percent were accepted to college, a charter school spokesman said.

"The kids at Anacostia deserve such a great honor," said Jacqueline Smallwood, 31, seeing her sister graduate. "So often, they get the short end of the stick. This time, they're on the other side."

Smallwood's younger sister, LaPrelle Ballinger, 18, is the last of five siblings to attend high school but the first to graduate. "It's something my mom wanted for all of us. She's the one fulfilling the dream."

Ballinger is a teen mom, Smallwood added, "so it's been doubly hard, double everything for her."

The journey to this day has not been easy for many of these students -- or for the city. When D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) was mentioned at the lectern -- he was not present -- the audience launched into a round of boos that even the first lady's presence did not quell.

And some of the graduates needed an extended family's help to make it to graduation.

"We have struggled, trying to get her to graduate," said Karen Starks, referring to her granddaughter Starquasha Spears, 17. "She just went through that too-grown stage. She thought she could outsmart the teachers."

There were arguments and pleas, transfers to multiple schools in the hopes of getting Spears away from negative influences and, in between it all, the birth of Spears's son.

"I didn't think this day would ever come," Starks said.

Yellow school buses and charters ferried some of the students and their families across the river to the historic DAR Constitution Hall, where they could revel in the full pomp and circumstance of graduation. The guests, overwhelmingly African American, arrived wearing sundresses and sequined hats, suits and Barack Obama T-shirts. Younger siblings smiled shyly with pride, and infants, some the offspring of the graduates themselves, slept peacefully on shoulders.

As the ceremony began, the popular first lady, in a dove-gray sheath, was greeted with raucous cheers, shout-outs, fist-pumping and a few woof-woofs. And that was before she'd even uttered a word. Only council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), who was also on stage, came close to receiving such an ardent reception. The first lady had spent a few minutes backstage greeting school officials, as well as class valedictorian Jordan Smiley, who will attend Hampton University in the fall. But she hadn't met Barry. So he trooped from one side of the stage to the other -- as everyone else was settling in for the speeches -- to give the first lady a handshake, a hug, a kiss, a how-do-you-do, all in view of constituents, who enthused over him all the more.

Obama's speech embraced tough realism and sweeping optimism. She encouraged graduates to step outside of their comfort zone, ask for help, give back and, most important, get real.

"Part of being a mature and functioning adult in this society is realizing that life is a series of trade-offs. 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," Obama said. "If you want a life free from drama, then you can't hang out with people who thrive on drama. You have to pick your friends wisely."

She also recognized that for some students, just getting to this point is an exceptional victory. They will not go to college. But education isn't limited to the university classroom, she said.

And then she offered a bit of job-hunting advice in these tough times: "Be persistent," she said. And if all else fails, volunteer.

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