Barbara Bush stepped before 286 graduates of Dunbar High School last week and gave a 10-minute speech on family, community and the necessity to "get involved in some of the big ideas of our time."
She quoted Michael Jackson, reminded students of Dunbar's illustrious history, even tossed in a quick campaign pitch for former police chief and Republican mayoral candidate Maurice T. Turner Jr., a Dunbar alumnus.
It was a rousing address that won a standing ovation from the students and their parents assembled in Constitution Hall for Dunbar's 113th commencement. Dunbar, in the Shaw neighborhood of Northwest Washington, was once the city's only high school for blacks and has graduated scores of prominent black doctors, lawyers, politicians and scientists.
Bush took note of Dunbar's success in developing careers, but she asked the graduates to give family, children and community their highest priority.
"Our success as a society depends not on what happens in the White House, but what happens in your house," she said.
Bush's remarks were similar to those she delivered to graduates of Wellesley College earlier this month, except that she repeatedly introduced names of famous black achievers to illustrate her points.
She spoke of Mary Jane Patterson, who became the country's first black college graduate in 1862 -- and later served as Dunbar's principal. She mentioned Dorothy Brown, who grew up in an orphanage but has become one of the country's most prominent black women doctors. And she used a line from one of Michael Jackson's hit songs, telling the graduates "to start with the man in the mirror" in any attempt they make to improve their communities.
At one point, while listing local leaders who have graduated from Dunbar, she injected "Mayor" before Maurice Turner, then pretended it was a gaffe. The crowd laughed and murmured, then Bush said, "Don't forget I said that."
Afterward, students praised the first lady's speech. "It was wonderful," said Charisse Stafford. "She said a lot of true facts, and she said them very nicely."
Graduation ceremonies for the District's high schools often feature speakers with national acclaim, and that held true this year. At Anacostia High School, Col. Frederick Gregory, the country's first black space shuttle commander and an Anacostia alumnus, spoke to graduates. At Duke Ellington School for the Performing Arts, entertainer Debbie Allen was the speaker.
For Dunbar, Bush's speech was an upbeat end to what has been at times a troubling year. Two students were shot to death in the neighborhood around the school and the drug trade continues to flourish in the area.
At last week's ceremonies in Constitution Hall, there was no talk of that. Dunbar hailed students who collected thousands of dollars in scholarships, received awards for community service, and are bound for colleges around the country.
"We are here today because we believe in ourselves," said Nichelle Herriott, the salutatorian, in her speech to graduates. "We have discounted the blatantly negative hype about D.C. youth."