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Michelle Obama returns to London girls school she says shaped her work as first lady

Former first lady Michelle Obama spoke to students at the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School in London Dec. 3 and urged them to support each other. (Video: AP)

LONDON — Michelle Obama returned Monday to the place where it all started.

In London to promote her memoir, “Becoming,” Obama went back to the all-girls, inner-city London school she credits with helping to spark her ongoing work on girls’ education. She tweeted that visiting the school nine years ago “shaped who I became as First Lady.”

At two separate events here Monday, Obama was greeted with a standing ovation and rapturous applause.

London was meant to be the first stop on the European leg of her book tour. But Obama recently canceled events in Paris and Berlin so she could attend the funeral of George H.W. Bush. A memorial service for the 41st U.S. president, who died Friday, will be held at Washington National Cathedral on Wednesday morning

The warm reception given to Obama by Londoners is in stark contrast to that offered to President Trump, whose visit to the United Kingdom earlier this year drew tens of thousands of protesters onto the streets of the British capital. One group flew a giant “Trump Baby” balloon above Parliament.

The London lovefest seemed to be a two-way street.

Asked Monday what she was most proud of as first lady, she looked out at a sea of high school students and said, “This relationship that we built together is really one of my biggest sources of pride.” She added that “raising my daughters and having them turn out sane” was also a source of pride, “because it wasn’t a guarantee.”

The former first lady has written movingly in her memoir about the effect the London schoolgirls have had on her.

In 2009, Obama visited Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, a secondary school located not far from public housing estates. Delivering her first overseas speech as first lady, she looked out at the students — 92 percent of which came from black or minority ethnic backgrounds — and was reminded of her younger self.

In her memoir, Obama wrote that at the school, “there were girls in hijab, girls for whom English was a second language, girls whose skin made up every shade of brown.” She said, “They’d need to fight the invisibility that comes with being poor, female, and of color.”

“For me it was a strange, quiet revelation: They were me, as I’d once been. And I was them, as they could be,” she wrote.

Over the years, she kept in touch. She wrote letters to the girls. In 2011, she took a group to visit Oxford University. The following year, she invited a group to the White House. In 2015, she also visited Mulberry School for Girls in Tower Hamlets, one of London’s most deprived boroughs.

Sharing the stage with her on Monday was Winnie Mac, 22, who recalled what it was like hearing Obama speak nine years ago. “The two things that really made an impact on me were she said that being smart was the coolest thing in the world, and also how important it was to reach back and help others,” she said.

At Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, Obama spoke about mentorship, motherhood and role models. She implored the students to “lift each other up” and said there was “no room for mean girls.” She also told them that she still has “a little impostor syndrome — it never goes away.”

Later in the day, she spoke at London’s Royal Festival Hall, in a conversation with the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Tickets for the event sold out within minutes. When they first went on sale, more than 55,000 people were waiting in an online queue for a venue that seats 2,700 people. Tickets sprang up for resale on online websites for thousands of pounds.

Obama told the evening audience that her husband, former president Barack Obama, was “a little jealous that I’m done.” She said that he was “very proud” of her, but that his book was “hanging over his head right now.”

“He’s truly the writer. I’m more of the storyteller,” she said.

“Michelle Obama is a role model, an icon, and an absolutely amazing woman,” said Janet Sparks-Samuels, 57, who watched Obama speak Monday night. Last month, she said, she lined up outside Royal Festival Hall at 4 a.m. to secure a ticket.

Obama, she said, “understands our position as women, but also as black women, and that to me is one of the key reasons I wanted to come here. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”