School ties that bound First Lady

Michelle Obama - then the US First Lady - during a visit to the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School in Islington, north London, in 2009
Michelle Obama - then the US First Lady - during a visit to the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School in Islington, north London, in 2009
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She is not technically one of its alumni, but the ties that bind the former First Lady of the United States to a girls’ comprehensive in north London ran deeper than she knew.

It was the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School, named after the suffragist who was the first woman to qualify in Britain as a physician, that had inspired Michelle Obama to use her position to promote education.

When she first went there in 2009, in the first year of her husband’s term of office, it had 900 refugee pupils, speaking in 55 different languages.

She kept in touch, and when she returned yesterday and saw the letters they had kept, she nearly cried, she said.

“This relationship that we built together is one of my biggest sources of pride,” she said.

“When I was walking here, I saw you have framed all the letters and almost broke down.

“Truly, for me, if there is anyone out there who sees a different possibility for themselves as a young person – changing a life, saving a life in some circumstances – that really is what I’m most proud of.”

Letrishka Anthony and Winnie Mac, two of the pupils whom she had inspired joined her yesterday. Ms Mac, now 22, a chemistry graduate and an inventor with a materials firm, said she had felt compelled to said to return to help out.

Mrs Obama was in London on a book tour, but she had made time for a conversation on the importance of education, in front of 250 pupils from the school and another comprehensive in the East End.

Meeting the pupils on her first visit, she said, had reminded her of herself.

“It gives me a level of focus and determination when I get to see you all up close. And as I said then, you remind me of me and all the fears and all the challenges that you face.”

She had said in 2009 that the girls knew they would “be defined before they’d had a chance to define themselves” and would have to “fight the invisibility that comes with being poor, female and of colour.”

The school’s executive head, Jo Dibb said Mrs Obama’s visit had made a “huge impact”, adding that she had kept in touch “with absolute integrity and authenticity”.

In 2011, on a state visit to Britain, she took a group of the school’s pupils to Oxford University, and the following year welcomed 12 of them to the White House.

Of the ways diversity in the top universities can be improved, she said: “All kids can only dream things that are known to them. If they don’t see elite colleges, if they don’t know they exist, they don’t know what to dream of.

“This is why our visit to Oxford was so important. Colleges and universities have to start doing the work reaching out to kids very young. We have to start working on that pipeline much earlier.”

Mrs Obama also encouraged the pupils to practise supporting each other.

“We as women don’t have the luxury of tearing each other down, there are enough barriers out there,” she said.

“There are enough people out there ready to tear us down. Our job is to lift each other up, so we have to start practising now.”