Remarks by the First Lady at Number Seven School
March 25, 2014
Ni hao. It is truly a pleasure to be here at the Number Seven School. Thank you so much for your warm welcome.
Now, before I get started, on behalf of myself and my husband, I want to say that our hearts go out to all those with loved ones on Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. As I said this past weekend when I spoke at Peking University, we are very much keeping all of them in our thoughts and our prayers at this tremendously difficult time.
So now, let me start by thanking your Principal, Principal Liu, and your classmate, Ju Chao, for that wonderful introduction. Your English, Ju Chao, is excellent, and you should be very proud. Thank you so much. (Applause.) And I want to thank all of the students here today, both those of you here in person and those of you joining remotely from across the region. I’m thrilled to be visiting your wonderful school.
Now, in preparation for this visit, before I left the U.S. I visited the Yu Ying School. It’s a public school near the White House in Washington, D.C., and all of the students at this school study Chinese. And I met with the sixth-grade class, kids who are 11 and 12 years old. They had recently taken a trip here to China, and they were bursting with excitement. They were eager to tell me about everything about what they had seen.
But they admitted that before their trip, they had all kinds of misconceptions about China. They thought they would see palaces and temples everywhere they went, but instead they found massive cities filled with skyscrapers. They weren’t sure that they’d like the food here in China, but they actually loved it, and they learned how to use chopsticks. And in the end, one of the students told me –- and this is his quote -- he said, “Coming home was really exciting, but was at the same time sad.”
Now, meeting these students reminded me that when we live so far away from each other, it’s easy to develop all kinds of misconceptions and stereotypes. It’s easy to focus on our differences –- how we speak different languages and eat different foods and observe different traditions. But as I travel the world, and I meet young people from so many countries, I’m always struck by how much more we have in common. And that’s been particularly true during my visit here in China.
You see, the truth is that I grew up like many of you. My mom, my dad, my brother and I, we lived in a tiny apartment in Chicago, which is one of the largest cities in America. My father worked at the local water plant. And we didn’t have much money, but our little home was bursting with love. Every evening, my family would laugh and share stories over dinner. We’d play card games and have fun for hours. And on summer nights, I remember, when our apartment got too hot, we’d all sleep outside on our back porch.
Family meant everything to us, including our extended family. My grandparents lived nearby, and my elderly great aunt and uncle lived in the apartment downstairs from us. And when their health started to decline my parents stepped in, helping my uncle shave and dress each morning, dashing downstairs in the middle of the night to check on my aunt.
So in my family, like in so many of your families, we took care of each other. And while we certainly weren’t rich, my parents had big dreams for me and my brother. They had only a high school education themselves, but they were determined to send us both to universities.
So they poured all of their love and all of their hope into us, and they worked hard. They saved every penny. And I know that wasn’t easy for them, especially for my father. You see, my father had a serious illness called multiple sclerosis. And as he got sicker, it got harder for him to walk, and it took him longer to get dressed in the morning.
But no matter how tired he felt, no matter how much pain he was in, my father hardly ever missed a day of work, because he was determined to give me and my brother a better life. And every day, like so many of you, I felt the weight of my parents’ sacrifices on my shoulders. Every day, I wanted to make them proud.
So while most American kids attend public schools near their homes, when it was time for me to attend high school, I took an exam and got into a special public high school where I could get a better education. But the school was very far from my home, so I had to get up early every morning and ride a bus for an hour, sometimes an hour and a half if the weather was bad. And every afternoon, I’d ride that same bus back home and then immediately start my homework, often studying late into the night -- and sometimes I would wake up at 4:30 or 5:00 in the morning to study even more.
And it wasn’t easy. But whenever I got tired or discouraged, I would just think about how hard my parents were working for me. And I would remember something my mother always told me –- she said: “A good education is something that no one can take away from you.”
And when it was time for me to apply to university, I had many options, because in America, there are many kinds of universities. There are four-year universities. There are two-year community colleges which are less expensive. There are universities where you take classes at night while working during the day. So you don’t have to be a top student to attend a university. And even if your parents don’t have much money or you live in a tiny town in a rural area, in America, you can still attend university. And you can get scholarships and government loans to help pay your tuition.
So I attended Princeton University for my undergraduate degree, and I went on to Harvard University for my graduate degree in law. And with those degrees I was able to become a lawyer at a large law firm, and then I worked as an executive at a city hospital, and then I was the director of an organization that helped disadvantaged young people.
And my story isn’t unusual in America. Some of our most famous athletes, like LeBron James, and artists, like the singer Janelle Monae, came from struggling families like mine, as do many business leaders – like Howard Schultz. He’s the head of a company called Starbucks, which many of you may have heard of. When Mr. Schultz was a boy his father lost his job, leaving their family destitute. But Mr. Schultz worked hard. He got a scholarship to a university, and eventually built the largest coffeehouse company in the world.
And then there’s this other guy I know who was raised by a single mother who sometimes struggled to afford food for their family. But like me, this guy got scholarships and loans to attend universities. He became a lawyer and a professor, and then he was a state senator and then a national senator. And then, he became President of the United States. This guy I’m talking about is my husband, Barack Obama. (Applause.)
These stories are the stories of so many Americans, and of America itself. Because in America, we believe that no matter where you live or how much money your parents have, or what race or religion or ethnicity you are, if you work hard and believe in yourself, then you should have a chance to succeed. We also believe that everyone is equal, and that we all have the right to say what we think and worship as we choose, even when others don’t like what we say or don’t always agree with what we believe.
Now of course, living up to these ideals isn’t always easy. And there have been times in our history where we have fallen short. Many decades ago, there were actually laws in America that allowed discrimination against black people like me, who are a minority in the United States. But over time, ordinary citizens decided that those laws were unfair. So they held peaceful protests and marches. They called on government officials to change those laws, and they voted to elect new officials who shared their views.
And slowly but surely, America changed. We got rid of those unjust laws. And today, just 50 years later, my husband and I are President and First Lady of the United States. And that is really the story of America –- how over the course of our short history, through so many trials and struggles, we have become more equal, more inclusive, and more free.
And today in America, people of every race, religion and ethnicity live together and work together to build a better life for their children and grandchildren. And in the end, that deep yearning to leave something better for those who come after us, that is something we all truly share. In fact, there’s a Chinese saying that I love that says, “To achieve true happiness, help the next generation.”
And like so many of your parents, my parents sacrificed so much so that I could have opportunities they never dreamed of. And today, as a mother myself, I want even more opportunities for my own daughters. But of course, as I always tell my daughters, with opportunities come obligations.
And that is true for all of you as well. You all have the opportunity to receive an education from this wonderful school, and you all have an obligation to take the fullest advantage of this opportunity. And I know that’s exactly what you all are doing.
You’re winning prizes in math and science. Here, you are staging musical performances around the world. You’re volunteering in your communities. And many of you are working hard to get an education your parents never dreamed of.
So you all have so much to offer –- and that’s a good thing, because the world needs your talent. The world needs your creativity and energy more than ever before. Because we face big challenges that know no borders –- like improving the quality of our air and water, ensuring that people have good jobs, stopping the spread of disease. And soon, it will all fall to all of you to come together with people on every continent and solve these problems together.
Now, fortunately, here at this wonderful school, you’re already well on your way. For more than a decade, you’ve been building special relationships with a American school in -- an American high school, and many of you will attend universities in America or find other ways to reach out beyond your borders.
So in the years ahead, much like you and I are doing here today, you will be creating bonds of friendship across the globe that will last for decades to come. And over the past week, as I have seen both the ancient wonders and the modern achievements of your fascinating country, and as I’ve met with extraordinary young people like all of you, I am more confident than ever before in our shared future. And I cannot wait to see everything that you will achieve here in China and around the world.
Thank you again for hosting me and my family at this extraordinary school, and I wish you all the best of luck in your journey ahead. Xie-Xie. (Applause.)