With our collective attention riveted on Pope Francis’s visit to the U.S., the Russian airstrikes in Syria and the horrible mass shooting at an Oregon college campus, you might’ve missed the news clip showing Michelle Obama talking to a theater full of high school girls about education. It’s worth checking out for both its message and its honesty.
Part pep talk, part advocacy, part personal peek at how bumpy and confusing adolescence can be —even for someone who would become one of the most powerful women in America — the First Lady’s remarks reflect what many bookish girls have thought at one time or another. "Compete with the boys. Beat the boys."
Obama was part of an event at Harlem’s Apollo Theater for her “Let Girls Learn‘’ project, a campaign that hopes to expand girls’ access to education in developing countries while also encouraging girls at home to seize educational opportunities. The group has launched several grassroots projects aimed at cultural pressures that prevent girls from hitting the books, the latest being #62MillionGirls, a take on the number of girls who are not in school worldwide, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development.
The First Lady told the girls to focus on school. Forget the boys — and everybody else — who might put you down because you’re smart, because you’re curious, because your nose is firmly buried in a book. “There is no boy at this age that is cute enough or interesting enough to stop you from getting your education,’’ she said.
Listening to Obama’s advice to these girls got me thinking about what I would tell my younger self, that teenager whose insecurities seem laughable in retrospect. Surely most of us who have matured into middle age and beyond realize that many emotional speed bumps could’ve been avoided with a little more confidence, with a smidgen of perspective, with an assurance that we weren’t alone in feeling so different, so out of step with everything around us.
But I made it anyway, thought at times I’m astonished at the improbability of my good life, at times disappointed for the opportunities I let slip. What have I learned? What would I tell those girls at the cusp of womanhood?
Stop worrying about what everybody else is thinking. In adolescence, even as we rebel against our parents’ rules, even as we chafe at society’s restrictions, we seem to be forever looking for approval. That’s a fool’s errand. No matter where you are, in high school or at the office, people are notably fickle and popularity not as much fun as anyone thinks it is.
Jealousy is a burden. There will always be people who are smarter, lovelier, richer. But every parade gets rained on, and sometimes more than once. As a journalist I’m always surprised by how the seemingly perfect life harbors its own misfortune.
Don’t wait for the children to grow up, or for the bank account to fatten, or for the weight loss that will make you feel beautiful. Do what feeds your soul, what you’re meant to do now. There is never an ideal time.
Success wears many faces. Not everyone will win an Oscar, or invent a vaccine, or launch a Facebook, or paint a Guernica. Or become First Lady, for that matter. But all of us, bar none, can lead our own small, happy lives, true to our priorities.
If only I had known all this when I was wearing earth shoes and lime-green bell bottoms. If only.