As everyone waited for Michelle Obama to arrive, there were distractions aplenty in the gymnasium of Booker T. Washington High School. From the bleachers, teens screamed for the cameras, fielded questions from MTV News host Sway Calloway, cheered for the cheerleaders, and danced along with the marching band. From folding chairs on the other side of the gymnasium, reporters passed time playing spot-the-dignitary: First lady of Georgia Sandra Deal! HUD secretary Julian Castro! Atlanta City Council president Ceasar Mitchell! New first lady of Atlanta (and new mom) Sarah-Elizabeth Reed! State senator Vincent Fort! And fresh-on-the-job Atlanta Public Schools chief Meria Carstarphen, for whom hosting the First Lady of the United States and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan certainly would seem like a good way to make a splash.
The event kicked off Duncan’s fifth annual “Partners in Progress” bus tour, which is intended to spotlight reform and innovation in state and local school systems. After stops in Georgia, Duncan will head to Alabama and Tennessee. “Every one of you has a passion,” said Duncan, adding that his enthusiasms are playing basketball and working in education, “and those are the only two jobs I’ve ever had.” (Duncan, who played for Harvard, also did a pro stint in Australia; check out his appearance at the 2014 All-Star Celebrity game.)
When Michelle Obama finally took to the stage, the decibel level rose stratospherically—and one girl even fainted. That happens when you stand for a long time, explained the First Lady. “Everyone else, if you’ve been standing, remember to bend your knees.”
Obama addressed the students with directly simple eloquence, describing how, growing up on the South Side of Chicago, she had one goal: going to Princeton. She drew up a plan for getting there. “You can’t just coast through, you’ve got to stretch yourself,” she said. She described getting up at four in the morning to travel across town to school, then coming home and working late into the night. “I didn’t grow up in a nice neighborhood, but I made it,” she said. “If I can do it, you can do it.” (More than 88 percent of the students at Booker T. Washington qualify for free and reduced lunch.)
She described hard times—struggling with coursework, an adviser who told her to set her sights lower than Princeton, and her father’s struggle with multiple sclerosis. “But a lot of you are dealing with worse challenges,” she said. “But that means a lot of you already have that grit.”
Obama mentioned the school’s most famous alum—“Y’all better know who I’m taking about!”—Martin Luther King Jr., who attended when Booker T. Washington was the first, and only, public school for African Americans. “It’s your responsibility to live up to that legacy,” she said. Are you ready?” The students cheered, “Yes!”
“Now I am going to shake some hands,” said the First Lady, and she walked into a crowd of students wearing royal blue T-shirts and khakis. The sound system blared Pharrell’s “Happy.”
Outside the school, Duncan fielded questions from reporters and posed in front of the tour bus. “I have zero interest in politics,” he said in response to a question about Sandra Deal’s presence at the event. “This is not political at all, it’s about helping schools and kids succeed, and there are many partners in this effort.” He was headed to another education event in Carrollton.
Michelle Obama was en route to a get-out-the-vote rally with Michelle Nunn, the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate.