Michelle Obama

Michelle Obama Talks About Growing Up on South Side at King College Prep Graduation

Michelle Obama gave the commencement speech to the same class that Hadiya Pendleton was in before she was gunned down in 2013

In a nod to her past, the first lady spoke about growing up on Chicago's South Side Tuesday evening during her commencement address to the graduating seniors from King College Prep.

"I know the struggles many of you face: how you walk the long way home to avoid the gangs: how you fight to concentrate on your schoolwork when there's too much noise at home; how you keep it together when your family's having a hard time making ends meet," Michelle Obama told the students. 

The first lady grew up in the South Shore neighborhood near King College Prep, which is located in Kenwood, the same neighborhood the Obamas lived in before they moved to the White House. Instead of dwelling on the hardships in the community, however, Obama encouraged students to think beyond the stereotype of their neighborhoods and realize their own potential.

Perhaps in reference to "Chiraq," Spike Lee's contentious film about "black-on-black violence" in Chicago, Obama maintained that most of the people in the South Side communities where the students live are decent and hardworking, echoing Mayor Rahm Emanuel's disapproving remarks about the film.

First Lady Michelle Obama was the commencement speaker Tuesday night at King College Prep’s graduation ceremony.

"I'm here tonight because I want people across this country to know that story, the real story of the South Side -- the story of that quiet majority of good folks, families like mine and young people like you who face real challenges, but make good choices every single day," Obama said.

The words of encouragement were not spoken without an acknowledgement of loss, however. Obama delivered her remarks to the classmates of Hadiya Pendleton, a 15-year-old honors student who was gunned down in 2013 just days after performing with the high school band at President Obama's inauguration ceremony.

Hadiya's death brought national attention to the issue of gun violence in Chicago, and Michelle Obama personally attended her funeral. The first lady's presence at the graduation for Hadiya's classmates -- and her acknowledgement of Hadiya's parents' bravery and courage -- is a sign that the teen was not forgotten, nor were the many other young people who have been killed in Chicago.

Michelle Obama
A seat for Hadiya Pendleton is decorated before graduation ceremonies for the Class of 2015 at King College Prep, held on the campus of Chicago State University, Tuesday, June 9, 2015, in Chicago. Pendleton would have graduated if she hadn't been shot and killed in a gang incident. First Lady Michelle Obama was the commencement speaker; her speech was expected to be the latest by the first lady aimed at at-risk youth in her hometown.

"Every scar that you have is a reminder not just that you got hurt -- but that you survived," Obama said. "And as painful as they are, those holes we all have in our hearts are what truly connect us to each other. They are the spaces we can make for other people's sorrow and pain -- as well as their joy and love -- so that eventually, instead of feeling empty, our hearts feel even bigger and fuller."

Toward the end of the speech, Obama spoke about her first days at Princeton, where she said she felt overwhelmed and out of place. She told the King College Prep students that she followed the lead of those who students who grew up expecting to be successful and, thus, asked questions and took advantage of the immense resources available to them at college.

In a final nod to her own roots and the roots of the graduating seniors, Obama once more encouraged the students to live beyond a stereotype.

"Graduates, starting today, it is your job to make sure that no one else is ever again surprised by who we are and where we come from," she said.

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