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Once upon a time, there was a girl who always aimed high—and inspired others to do the same. Her name was Michelle. When Michelle was a little girl living on the Southside of Chicago, her mother always told her: “If it can be done, you can do it.” Though often full of self-doubt, Michelle was so smart and hardworking, that she skipped second grade, and in middle school, she graduated second in her class. She went on to study law at Harvard and eventually became the first Black First Lady of the United States. Now an author, mother, and lawyer, Michelle Obama is everything the younger version of herself dreamt of becoming
Pearl Thusi is a South African actress, model, television host, and radio personality. She currently stars as the title character in Queen Sono, Netflix’s first African original series.
PEARL THUSI Once upon a time, there was a girl who always aimed high—and inspired others to do the same. Her name was Michelle.
THUSI Michelle grew up in the 1970s on the South Side of Chicago. She lived in a small brick house on a quiet street called Euclid Avenue and loved shooting hoops or riding her bike in the sunshine. Most of all, she loved her family.
Michelle shared a bedroom with her older brother, Craig. After their parents put them to bed, Michelle and Craig often talked into the night and told jokes that made them laugh until their sides hurt.
Michelle’s mother taught her how to read and encouraged her to always speak up for herself. And though her father worked long hours at a city water plant, he taught Michelle about jazz and how to throw a “mean right hook.”
Neither of Michelle’s parents had finished college, but they were certain that Michelle and her brother would take a different path.
“If it can be done, you can do it,” Michelle’s mom said.
THUSI And she was often right. Michelle was so smart and hardworking, she skipped second grade, and in middle school, she graduated second in her class.
Still, Michelle was full of doubts. More than anything, she feared disappointing her parents.
Whatever she did or became, she hoped she’d make her parents proud.
She hoped that she would be enough.
THUSI I’m Pearl Thusi. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.
A fairy tale podcast about the rebel women who inspire us.
This week: Michelle Obama.
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THUSI Michelle’s great-aunt Robbie, a piano teacher, lived on the first floor of their house. Every day, Michelle heard piano students plunking their way up and down their scales.
At four years old, Michelle learned piano, too. She quickly figured out that the more she practiced, the better she got. Sometimes she practiced so much, her mom had to tell her to stop!
While Michelle learned a lot about hard work from piano lessons, she also learned from her dad.
When Michelle was young, her father developed a disease called multiple sclerosis, which affected his spine and muscles. It was hard for him to walk, and he had to use crutches or a cane.
Still, every day he got up, dressed in his blue uniform, and went to work.
Michelle never once heard him complain.
THUSI When Michelle started high school, she took a big risk. Instead of going to the high school near her house, she went to Whitney M. Young High School, a new magnet school that brought together talented students from across Chicago.
This school offered her challenging classes and a diverse student body. There were students who were black, like Michelle, and a lot who were Asian, Latinx, and white. The only problem was, to get there, she had to ride a city bus one-and-a-half hours each way!
For Michelle, though, this was part of the adventure. As Michelle rode through the city, she marveled at the big buildings and the men and women in dark suits walking like they had somewhere important to be.
She wondered what they did and where they were going.
THUSI When people asked Michelle what she wanted to be when she grew up, she told them she wanted to be a pediatrician—mostly because it impressed them. But really, she didn’t know.
Maybe one day, I’ll work in one of those big buildings, she thought.
THUSI Michelle delighted in Whitney Young’s diversity, but it also intimidated her: While there were kids like her who grew up without a lot of money, there were also kids who vacationed in Europe and had private tutors. She wondered if she’d be able to keep up.
Michelle struggled with tests, but she knew how to work hard. When her brother Craig headed out to play basketball with his friends after breezing through his homework, Michelle would be at her desk, hand to her forehead, making flashcards or scribbling out another draft of a paper.
Still, she heard a persistent voice in her head: Am I good enough?
By senior year, she was in the top 10% of her class. When she met with a guidance counselor about going to college, Michelle said, “I want to go to Princeton.”
Princeton University was a prestigious school—but Craig had gotten in, so Michelle wanted to go, too.
The guidance counselor glanced over Michelle’s file and pursed her lips. “I’m not sure you’re Princeton material,” she said.
Michelle’s cheeks flushed, her ears ringing with not enough, not enough, not enough. When she walked out of her appointment, though, instead of resignation, she felt anger. Then, her mom’s words filled her head: If it can be done, you can do it.
THUSI Michelle not only got into Princeton—but when she finished college, she was accepted to Harvard Law School, one of the best law schools in the United States. Afterwards, Michelle got a job at a law firm in Chicago.
Her dream had come true: She was one of those women in a business suit walking down the street with passion and purpose.
Well, with purpose, at least. Now, at age 25, Michelle looked out the windows of her high-rise office building and had other dreams.
She’d been so busy showing the world she was good enough, she’d lost sight of what she wanted.
In fact, she didn’t know what she wanted—but she was pretty sure “lawyer” wasn’t it.
Michelle pushed these thoughts from her head. She had a good job, and she’d made her parents proud. That was what she’d wanted, right?
Then, one summer, a memo came across her desk that would change the course of her life.
Her bosses wanted her to be a mentor for a summer associate—a law school student from Harvard. She said “yes” but didn’t think much of it.
All she remembered thinking was that he had a funny name: Barack Obama.
THUSI On his first day, Barack was late. When he finally showed up, he apologized sheepishly. Annoyed, Michelle introduced herself and showed him around the office.
Soon, she realized Barack didn’t need much mentoring. He was older than she was, had a brain like an encyclopedia, and approached the world brimming with confidence, compassion, and optimism.
He was never on time for anything, but Michelle started to like him anyway. She liked his smile. She liked his passion for making the world a better place. She even liked arguing with him.
Barack asked her out, but she told him “no.” She had a career, had sworn off dating, and besides, he was going back to Harvard in the fall.
But one day, something shifted. After Michelle gave Barack a ride home from a work event, he cocked his head to the side and said, “Should we get ice cream?”
THUSI As they sat on the curb eating their ice cream cones, something began to loosen inside Michelle’s heart.
Barack looked at her with curiosity and smiled. “Can I kiss you?” he asked.
Her life had long been filled with clouds of doubt—about her job, about her purpose, about whether she was good enough.
But when she kissed him, everything suddenly felt solid and good and clear.
THUSI Barack went back to school that fall, and over the next two years, they kept their relationship afloat with hours of phone calls and squeezing in visits in whenever they could.
Then, two difficult things happened that would shift Michelle’s heart and move her life in unexpected directions. First, one of Michelle’s best friends from college, Suzanne, was diagnosed with cancer. Michelle was certain she’d get better, but Suzanne’s health never improved. At only 26, Suzanne passed away.
Michelle was heartbroken.
Then she experienced another loss: Her father, who was her rock, became very sick. Michelle visited him at the hospital and held his hand. He couldn’t speak, but as she cried, he raised her hand to his lips and kissed it again and again. Michelle knew he was saying goodbye. Later that night, he was gone.
THUSI Barack flew back for the funeral and held Michelle as she cried. Michelle leaned on her brother and mother, too.
All she had ever wanted to do was prove that she was enough. And she had.
But what about the rest of it? Michelle thought. She’d been too busy with work to spare a visit to Suzanne before she’d slipped into a coma. And her dad—he was gone at just 55 years old.
To her, the lesson was simple: Life is short and not to be wasted.
Her doubts had clouded her vision for long enough. Michelle knew she had more to offer. It was time to figure out what that was.
THUSI When Barack finished law school, he got a job and moved in with Michelle and her mom in their house on Euclid Avenue. Michelle said “yes” when Barack asked her to marry him, and she said “yes” to a new job at city hall. The job would mean a pay cut—but she’d be making a difference in her community.
In the meantime, Barack had his own dreams. He wanted to become a state senator.
“I think you’ll be frustrated,” Michelle said. “If you end up getting elected, you’re gonna go down there and nothing will get accomplished, no matter how hard you try. It’ll drive you crazy.”
“Maybe,” Barack said, shrugging. “But maybe I can do some good.”
Michelle had her reservations, but Barack had always supported her dreams. So she decided to support his, too.
THUSI Barack won his first election in 1996. He became an Illinois state senator, and several years later, in 2004, he became a U.S. Senator.
During this time, Michelle gave birth to two daughters, Malia and Sasha, and embraced motherhood. At the same time, she continued finding community-based jobs that challenged her.
But life was far from perfect.
As a state senator, Barack worked several days a week in Springfield, which was several hours away from their home in Chicago. And once Barack entered national politics, he split his time between Washington, D.C. and Illinois.
Often left home alone, Michelle was trying to raise two kids and work full-time while supporting her husband’s political career.
THUSI They fought about it a lot. Eventually, they talked with a counselor, who helped them find new ways to make it work.
More than anything, though, Michelle realized that Barack’s love was steady and real. She saw it in the way he played with their girls and heard it in the sound of his voice on the phone.
She had a deep faith in Barack’s love. So, if it could be done, she realized, they could do it.
THUSI As a U.S. Senator, Barack had landed on the national scene with a splash. Many people began to ask, “Will he run for president?”
Michelle knew Barack wanted to. But she knew how much a presidential run would upend their lives.
They talked about it a lot. They argued and cried.
Michelle didn’t want him to run, but eventually, she said yes because she loved him. And she said yes even though she still held onto one painful doubt: She didn’t think the U.S. was ready for a black president.
She didn’t think he could actually win.
THUSI Michelle loved her girls fiercely. So when Barack asked her to campaign for him, she agreed on one condition: She had to be back in Chicago to put their kids to bed every night.
THUSI Soon, Michelle found herself campaigning in living rooms and church basements across the U.S. No one told her what to do or say, so she just spoke from her heart.
She told people about her family, her dad’s job, and her mom taking care of them. She talked about her dad’s disability and living paycheck to paycheck. She talked about how she wasn’t sure about politics, but that Barack was “exactly the kind of smart, decent president [she’d] choose for this country.”
The more she told her story, the more comfortable she became. And eventually, the crowds she spoke to grew bigger.
Most of the time, people loved Michelle’s speeches. But some people criticized her for being too outspoken. Others called her mean names. That would hurt, and sometimes, it made her scared. But she ignored them and kept working hard.
The outpouring of support that Barack received bolstered Michelle’s hope. When Barack won the Democratic party’s nomination—which meant he’d be on the ballot for the presidential election—she realized he might have a chance of winning after all.
THUSI Before they knew it, it was election day.
In the voting booth, when Michelle got to Barack’s name on the ballot, she hesitated. Everything hinged on what happened this day—and their life was potentially about to change in ways she hadn’t even imagined.
Barack glanced toward Michelle and laughed. “You still trying to make up your mind?” he teased.
Later that night, she and Barack gathered with friends and family to watch the election results. Barack sat next to Michelle’s mom on a couch.
THUSI “Are you ready for this, Grandma?” he said. She gave him a quiet smile and squeezed his hand.
At 10:00 p.m., the news station flashed a breaking news alert with Barack’s name in big letters.
Barack had won. He was going to be the 44th president—and the first black president—of the United States.
Michelle and Barack and everyone who was with them erupted in cheers.
THUSI On a chilly day in January 2009, Barack was sworn in as president in Washington, D.C., with Michelle, Malia, and Sasha by his side. Thousands of people gathered to watch the ceremony, and millions more watched on T.V.
Soon after, the Obamas moved into the White House, and Michelle officially became the First Lady.
No other First Lady looked—or acted—like Michelle. Not only was she black, but she also ran obstacle courses, danced, and even hula-hooped on the White House lawn.
She met world leaders and spoke about important issues. She also started multiple programs to help kids be healthy.
For Michelle, though, her most important job was being “mom-in-chief.” Malia and Sasha still had to do chores and go to school. Michelle helped them with their homework and went to their basketball games and tried to make their lives as “normal” as possible. Michelle’s mother even moved into the White House to help them.
Michelle was grateful. For the first time in a long time, her family was in one place, together—and they would be for years to come.
THUSI When the Obamas left the White House in 2017, Michelle was proud of all that she and her husband had accomplished. Though she gets frustrated by the injustices she sees in the world today, she still believes in the power of hope and possibility, and she’s committed to “empower[ing] the next generation of politicians, … community activists, .. teachers[,] … doctors and lawyers.” As she said to one class of high school seniors in Washington, D.C.,
“We are living proof for you, that with the right support, it doesn’t matter what circumstances you were born into or how much money you have or what color your skin is. If you are committed to doing what it takes, anything is possible.”
And these days, when she gets that old critical voice in her ear, Michelle has an answer: Am I good enough? Yes, I am.