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People ask what it’s like to live in the White House. I sometimes say that it’s a bit like what I imagine living in a fancy hotel might be like, only the fancy hotel has no other guests in it—just you and your family. There are fresh flowers everywhere, with new ones brought in almost every day. The building itself feels old and a little intimidating. The walls are so thick and the planking on the floors so solid that sound in the residence seems to get absorbed quickly. The windows are grand and tall and also fitted with bomb-resistant glass, kept shut at all times for security reasons, which further adds to the stillness. The place is kept immaculately clean. There’s a staff made up of ushers, chefs, housekeepers, florists, and also electricians, painters, and plumbers, everyone coming and going politely and quietly, doing their best to keep a low profile, waiting until you’ve moved out of a room before slipping in to change the towels or put a fresh gardenia in the little vase at the side of your bed.
The rooms are big, all of them. Even the bathrooms and closets are built on a scale different from anything I’d ever encountered. Barack and I were surprised by how much furniture we had to pick out in order to make each room feel homey. Our bedroom had not just a king-sized bed—a beautiful four-poster with a wheat-colored cloth canopy overhead—but also a fireplace and a sitting area, with a couch, a coffee table, and a couple of upholstered chairs. There were five bathrooms for the five of us living in the residence, plus another ten spare bathrooms to go with them. I had not just a closet but a spacious dressing room adjoining it—the same room from which Laura Bush had shown me the Rose Garden view. Over time, this became my de facto private office, the place where I could sit quietly and read, work, or watch TV, dressed in a T-shirt and a pair of sweatpants, blessedly out of sight of everyone.
I understood how lucky we were to be living this way. The master suite in the residence was bigger than the entirety of the upstairs apartment my family had shared when I was growing up on Euclid Avenue. There was a Monet painting hanging outside my bedroom door and a bronze Degas sculpture in our dining room. I was a child of the South Side, now raising daughters who slept in rooms designed by a high-end interior decorator and who could custom order their breakfast from a chef.
I had these thoughts sometimes, and it gave me a kind of vertigo.
I tried, in my way, to loosen the protocol of the place. I made it clear to the housekeeping staff that our girls, as they had in Chicago, would make their own beds every morning. I also instructed Malia and Sasha to act as they’d always acted—to be polite and gracious and to not ask for anything more than what they absolutely needed or couldn’t get for themselves. But it was important to me, too, that our daughters feel released from some of the ingrown formalities of the place. Yes, you can throw balls in the hallway, I told them. Yes, you can rummage through the pantry looking for snacks. I made sure they knew they didn’t have to ask permission to go outside and play. I was heartened one afternoon during a snowstorm when I caught sight of the two of them through the window, sledding on the slope of the South Lawn, using plastic trays lent to them by the kitchen staff.
The truth was that in all of this the girls and I were supporting players, beneficiaries of the various luxuries afforded to Barack—important because our happiness was tied to his; protected for one reason, which was that if our safety was compromised, so too would be his ability to think clearly and lead the nation. The White House, one learns, operates with the express purpose of optimizing the well-being, efficiency, and overall power of one person—and that’s the president. Barack was now surrounded by people whose job was to treat him like a precious gem. It sometimes felt like a throwback to some lost era, when a household revolved solely around the man’s needs, and it was the opposite of what I wanted our daughters to think was normal. Barack, too, was uncomfortable with the attention, though he had little control over all the fuss.
He now had about fifty staffers reading and answering his mail. He had Marine helicopter pilots standing by to fly him anywhere he needed to go, and a six-person team that organized thick briefing books so he could stay current on the issues and make educated decisions. He had a crew of chefs looking after his nutrition, and a handful of grocery shoppers who safeguarded us from any sort of food sabotage by making anonymous runs to different stores, picking up supplies without ever revealing whom they worked for.
As long as I’ve known him, Barack has never derived pleasure from shopping, cooking, or home maintenance of any kind. He’s not someone who keeps power tools in the basement or shakes off work stress by making a risotto or trimming hedges. For him, the removal of all obligations and worries concerning the home made him nothing but happy, if only because it freed his brain, allowing it to roam unfettered over larger concerns, of which there were many.
Most amusing to me was the fact that he now had three personal military valets whose duties included standing watch over his closet, making sure his shoes were shined, his shirts pressed, his gym clothes always fresh and folded. Life in the White House was very different from life in the Hole.
“You see how neat I am now?” Barack said to me one day as we sat at breakfast, his eyes mirthful. “Have you looked in my closet?”
“I have,” I said, smiling back. “And you get no credit for any of it.”
In his first month in office, Barack signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which helped protect workers from wage discrimination based on factors like gender, race, or age. He ordered the end of the use of torture in interrogations and began an effort (ultimately unsuccessful) to close the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay within a year. He overhauled ethics rules governing White House employees’ interactions with lobbyists and, most important, managed to push a major economic stimulus bill through Congress, even though not a single House Republican voted in its favor. From where I sat, he seemed to be on a roll. The change he’d promised was becoming real.
As an added bonus, he was showing up for dinner on time.
For me and the girls, this was the startling, happy shift that came from living in the White House with the president of the United States as opposed to living in Chicago with a father who served in some faraway senate and was often out campaigning for higher office. We had access, at long last, to Dad. His life was more orderly now. He worked a ridiculous number of hours, as he always had, but at 6:30 p.m. sharp he’d get on the elevator and ride upstairs to have a family meal, even if he often had to go right back down to the Oval Office afterward. My mother sometimes joined us for dinner, too, though she’d fallen into her own sort of routine, coming down to say hello before accompanying Malia and Sasha to school but mostly choosing to leave us in the evenings, instead eating dinner upstairs in the solarium adjacent to her bedroom while Jeopardy! was on. Even when we asked her to stay, she’d usually wave us off. “You all need your time,” she’d say.
For the first few months in the White House, I felt the need to be watchful over everything. One of my earliest lessons was that it could be relatively costly to live there. While we stayed rent-free in the residence and had our utilities and staffing paid for, we nonetheless covered all other living expenses, which seemed to add up quickly, especially given the fancy-hotel quality of everything. We got an itemized bill each month for every food item and roll of toilet paper. We paid for every guest who came for an overnight stay or joined us for a meal. And with a culinary staff that had Michelin-level standards and a deep eagerness to please the president, I had to keep an eye on what got served. When Barack offhandedly remarked that he liked the taste of some exotic fruit at breakfast or the sushi on his dinner plate, the kitchen staff took note and put them into regular rotation on the menu. Only later, inspecting the bill, would we realize that some of these items were being flown in at great expense from overseas.
Most of my watchfulness in those early months, though, was reserved for Malia and Sasha. I monitored their moods, quizzing them on their feelings and their interactions with other children. I tried not to overreact anytime they reported making a new friend, though inwardly I was jubilant. I understood by now that there was no straightforward way to arrange playdates at the White House or outings for the kids, but slowly we were figuring out a system.
I was allowed to use a personal BlackBerry but had been advised to limit my contacts to only about ten of my most intimate friends—the people who loved and supported me without any sort of agenda. Most of my communications were mediated by Melissa, who was now my deputy chief of staff and knew the contours of my life better than anyone. She kept track of all my cousins, all my college friends. We gave out her phone number and email address instead of mine, directing all requests to her. Part of the issue was that old acquaintances and distant relatives were surfacing from nowhere and with a flood of inquiries. Could Barack speak at somebody’s graduation? Could I please give a speech for somebody’s nonprofit? Would we come to this party or that fund-raiser? Most of it was good-hearted, but it was too much for me to absorb all at once.
When it came to the day-to-day lives of our girls, I often had to rely on young staffers to help with logistics. My team met early on with teachers and administrators at Sidwell, recording important dates for school events, ironing out processes for media inquiries, and answering questions from teachers about handling classroom topics involving politics or news of the day. As the girls began making social plans outside school, my personal assistant (or “body person,” as it’s called in political parlance) became the point of contact, collecting the phone numbers of other parents, orchestrating pickups and drop-offs for playdates. Just as I always had in Chicago, I made a point of trying to get to know the parents of the girls’ new friends, inviting a few moms over for lunch and introducing myself to others during school events. Admittedly, these interactions could be awkward. I knew it sometimes took a minute for new acquaintances to move past whatever ideas they held about me and Barack, whatever they thought they knew of me from TV or the news, and to see me simply, if possible, as Malia’s or Sasha’s mom.
It was awkward to explain to people that before Sasha could come to little Julia’s birthday party, the Secret Service would need to stop by and do a security sweep. It was awkward to require Social Security numbers from any parent or caregiver who was going to drive a kid over to our house to play. It was all awkward, but it was all necessary. I didn’t like that there was this strange little divide to be crossed anytime I met someone new, but I was relieved to see that it was far different for Sasha and Malia, who went dashing outside to greet their school friends as they got dropped off at the Diplomatic Reception Room—or Dip Room, as we came to call it—grabbing them by the hand and running giggling inside. Kids care about fame, it turns out, for only a few minutes. After that, they just want to have fun.
I learned early on that I was meant to work with my staff to plan and execute a series of traditional parties and dinners, beginning most immediately with the Governors’ Ball, a black-tie gala held every February in the East Room. The same went for the annual Easter Egg Roll, an outdoor family celebration that had been started in 1878 and involved thousands of people. There were also springtime luncheons I would attend in honor of congressional and Senate spouses—similar to the one where I’d seen Laura Bush smiling so unflappably while having an official photo taken with every single guest.
For me, these social events could feel like distractions from what I hoped would be more impactful work, but I also started thinking about ways I might add to or at least modernize some of them, to bend the bar of tradition ever so slightly. In general, I was thinking that life in the White House could be forward leaning without losing any of its established history and tradition. Over time, Barack and I would take steps in this direction, hanging more abstract art and works by African American artists on the walls, for example, and mixing contemporary furniture in with the antiques. In the Oval Office, Barack swapped out a bust of Winston Churchill and replaced it with a bust of Martin Luther King Jr. And we gave the tuxedoed White House butlers the option of dressing more casually on days when there were no public events, introducing a khaki and golf shirt option.
Barack and I knew we wanted to do a better job of democratizing the White House, making it feel less elitist and more open. When we hosted an event, I wanted everyday people to show up, not just those accustomed to black-tie attire. And I wanted more kids around, because kids made everything better. I hoped to make the Easter Egg Roll accessible to more people—adding more slots for city schoolchildren and military families to go with the tickets guaranteed to the children and grandchildren of members of Congress and other VIPs. Lastly, if I was going to sit and lunch with the (mostly) wives of the House and the Senate, couldn’t I also invite them to join me out in the city for a community service project?
I knew what mattered to me. I didn’t want to be some sort of well-dressed ornament who showed up at parties and ribbon cuttings. I wanted to do things that were purposeful and lasting. My first real effort, I decided, would be the garden.
I was not a gardener and never had been in my life, but thanks to Sam Kass and our family’s efforts to eat better at home, I now knew that strawberries were at their most succulent in June, that darker-leaf lettuces had the most nutrients, and that it wasn’t so hard to make kale chips in the oven. I saw my daughters eating things like spring pea salad and cauliflower mac and cheese and understood that until recently most of what we knew about food had come through food-industry advertising of everything boxed, frozen, or otherwise processed for convenience, whether it was in snap-crackle TV jingles or clever packaging aimed at the harried parent dashing through the grocery store. Nobody, really, was out there advertising the fresh, healthy stuff—the gratifying crunch of a fresh carrot or the unparalleled sweetness of a tomato plucked right off the vine.
Planting a garden at the White House was my response to this problem, and I hoped it would signal the start of something bigger. Barack’s administration was focused on improving access to affordable health care, and for me the garden was a way to offer a parallel message about healthy living. I saw it as an early test, a trial run that could help me determine what I might be able to accomplish as First Lady, a literal way to root myself in this new job. I conceived of it as a kind of outdoor classroom, a place kids could visit to learn about growing food. On the surface, a garden felt elemental and apolitical, a harmless and innocent undertaking by a lady with a spade—pleasing to Barack’s West Wing advisers who were constantly concerned about “optics,” worrying about how everything appeared to the public.
But there was more to it than that. I planned to use the work we did in the garden to spark a public conversation about nutrition, especially at schools and among parents, which ideally would lead to discussions about how food was produced, labeled, and marketed and the ways that was affecting public health. And in speaking on these topics from the White House, I’d be offering an implicit challenge to the behemoth corporations in the food and beverage industry and the way they’d been doing business for decades.
The truth was, I really didn’t know how any of it would go over. But as I directed Sam, who’d joined the White House staff, to begin taking steps to create the garden, I knew I was ready to find out.
My optimism in those first months was primarily tempered by one thing, and that was politics. We lived in Washington now, right up close to the ugly red-versus-blue dynamic I’d tried for years to avoid, even as Barack had chosen to work inside it. Now that he was president, these forces all but ruled his every day. Weeks earlier, before the inauguration, the conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh baldly announced, “I hope Obama fails.” I’d watched with dismay as Republicans in Congress followed suit, fighting Barack’s every effort to stanch the economic crisis, refusing to support measures that would cut taxes and save or create millions of jobs. On the day he took office, according to some indicators, the American economy was collapsing as fast as or faster than it had at the onset of the Great Depression. Nearly 750,000 jobs had been lost that January alone. And while Barack had campaigned on the idea that it was possible to build consensus between parties, that Americans were at heart more united than divided, the Republican Party was making a deliberate effort, in a time of dire national emergency no less, to prove him wrong.
This was on my mind during the evening of February 24, when Barack addressed a joint session of Congress. The event is basically meant to be a substitute State of the Union for any newly inaugurated president, a chance to outline the goals for the coming year in a speech televised live during prime time, delivered in the hall of the House of Representatives with Supreme Court justices, cabinet members, military generals, and members of Congress present. It’s also a tradition of high pageantry, in which lawmakers dramatically express their approval or disapproval of the president’s ideas by either leaping to their feet in repeat standing ovations or remaining seated and sullen.
I took my seat that evening in the balcony between a fourteen-year-old who’d written a heartfelt letter to her president and a gracious veteran of the Iraq war, all of us waiting for my husband to arrive. From where I sat, I could see most of the chamber below. It was an unusual, bird’s-eye view of our country’s leaders, an ocean of whiteness and maleness dressed in dark suits. The absence of diversity was glaring—honestly, it was embarrassing—for a modern, multicultural country. It was most dramatic among the Republicans. At the time, there were just seven nonwhite Republicans in Congress—none of them African American and only one was a woman. Overall, four out of five members of Congress were male.
A few minutes later, the spectacle began with a thunderclap—the beating of a gavel and the call of the sergeant at arms. The crowd stood, applauding for more than five minutes straight as elected leaders jostled for position on the aisles. At the center of the storm, surrounded by a knot of security agents and a backward-walking videographer, was Barack, shaking hands and beaming as he slowly made his way through the room and toward the podium.
I’d observed this ritual many times before on television, during other times with other presidents. But something about seeing my husband down there amid the crush made the magnitude of the job and the fact he’d need to win over more than half of Congress to get anything done suddenly very real.
Barack’s speech that night was detailed and sober-minded, acknowledging the grim state of the economy, the wars going on, the ongoing threat of terror attacks, and the anger of many Americans who felt the government’s bailout of the banks was unfairly helping those responsible for the financial crisis. He was careful to be realistic but also to sound notes of hope, reminding his listeners of our resilience as a nation, our ability to rebound after tough times.
I watched from the balcony as Republican members of Congress stayed seated through most of it, appearing obstinate and angry, their arms folded and their frowns deliberate, looking like children who hadn’t gotten their way. They would fight everything Barack did, I realized, whether it was good for the country or not. It was as if they’d forgotten that it was a Republican president who’d governed us into this mess in the first place. More than anything, it seemed they just wanted Barack to fail. I confess that in that moment, with that particular view, I did wonder whether there was any path forward.
When I was a girl, I had vague ideas about how my life could be better. I’d go over to play at the Gore sisters’ house and envy their space—the fact that their family had a whole house to themselves. I thought that it would mean something if my family could afford a nicer car. I couldn’t help but notice who among my friends had more bracelets or Barbies than I did, or who got to buy their clothes at the mall instead of having a mom who sewed everything on the cheap using Butterick patterns at home. As a kid, you learn to measure long before you understand the size or value of anything. Eventually, if you’re lucky, you learn that you’ve been measuring all wrong.
We lived in the White House now. Very slowly, it was starting to feel familiar—not because I’d ever grow accustomed to the vastness of the space or the opulence of the lifestyle, but because this was where my family slept, ate, laughed, and lived. In the girls’ rooms we’d put on display the growing collections of trinkets that Barack made a habit of bringing home from his various travels—snow globes for Sasha, key chains for Malia. We began to make subtle changes to the residence, adding modern lighting to go with the traditional chandeliers and scented candles that made the place feel more like home. I would never take our good fortune or comfort for granted, though what I began to appreciate more was the humanity of the place.
Even my mother, who’d fretted about the museum-like formality of the White House, soon learned that there was more there to be measured. The place was full of people not all that different from us. A number of the butlers had worked for many years in the White House, tending to every family that came through. Their quiet dignity reminded me of my great-uncle Terry, who’d lived downstairs when I was growing up on Euclid Avenue, mowing our lawn dressed in wingtips and suspenders. I tried to make sure that our interactions with staff were respectful and affirming. I wanted to make sure they never felt invisible. If the butlers cared about politics, if they had private allegiances to one party or another, they kept it to themselves. They were careful to respect our privacy, but also were always open and welcoming, and gradually we became close. They instinctively sensed when to give me some space or when I could stand some gentle ribbing. Often they were talking trash about their favorite sports teams in the kitchen, where they liked to fill me in on the latest staff gossip or the exploits of their grandchildren as I looked over the morning headlines. If there was a college basketball game playing on the TV in the evening, Barack came in sometimes to join them for a little while to watch. Sasha and Malia came to love the convivial spirit of the kitchen, slipping in to make smoothies or pop popcorn after school. Many of the staff took a special shine to my mother, stopping in to catch up with her upstairs in the solarium.
It took some time for me to be able to recognize the voices of the different White House phone operators who gave me wake-up calls in the morning or connected me with the East Wing offices downstairs, but soon they, too, became familiar and friendly. We’d chat about the weather, or I’d joke about how I often had to be roused hours earlier than Barack to have my hair done ahead of official events. These interactions were quick, but in some small way they made life feel a little more normal.
One of the more experienced butlers, a white-haired African American man named James Ramsey, had served since the Carter administration. Every so often, he’d hand me the latest copy of Jet magazine, smiling proudly and saying, “I got you covered, Mrs. Obama.”
Life was better, always, when we could measure the warmth.
I’d been walking around thinking that our new house was big and grand to the point of being over the top, but then in April I went to England and met Her Majesty the Queen.
This was the first international trip Barack and I made together since the election, flying to London on Air Force One so that he could attend a meeting of the Group of 20, or G20, made up of leaders representing the world’s largest economies. It was a critical moment for such a gathering. The economic crisis in the United States had created devastating ripples across the globe, sending world financial markets into a tailspin. The G20 summit also marked Barack’s debut as president on the world stage. And as was often the case during those first months in office, his main job was to clean up a mess, in this case absorbing the frustration of other world leaders who felt the United States had missed important opportunities to regulate reckless bankers and prevent the disaster with which all of them were now dealing.
Beginning to feel more confident that Sasha and Malia were comfortable in their routines at school, I’d left my mother in charge for the few days I’d be abroad, knowing that she’d immediately relax all my regular rules about getting to bed early and eating every vegetable served at dinner. My mom relished being a grandmother, most especially the part where she got to throw over all my rigidity in favor of her own looser and lighter style, which was markedly more lax than when Craig and I had been the kids under her care. The girls were always thrilled to have Grandma in charge.
Gordon Brown, Britain’s prime minister, was hosting the G20 summit, which included a full day of economic meetings at a conference center in the city, but as often happened when world leaders showed up in London for official events, the Queen would also have everyone over to Buckingham Palace for a ceremonial hello. Because of America and Great Britain’s close relationship and also, I suppose, because we were new on the scene, Barack and I were invited to arrive at the palace early for a private audience with the Queen ahead of the larger reception.
Needless to say, I had no experience meeting royalty. I was given to understand that I could either curtsy or shake the Queen’s hand. I knew that we were to refer to her as “Your Majesty,” while her husband, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, went by “Your Royal Highness.” Other than that, I wasn’t sure what to expect as our motorcade rolled through the tall iron gates at the entrance to the palace, past onlookers pressed at the fences, past a collection of guards and a royal horn player, through an interior arch and up to the courtyard, where the official master of the household waited outside to greet us.
It turns out that Buckingham Palace is big—so big that it almost defies description. It has 775 rooms and is fifteen times the size of the White House. In the years to come, Barack and I would be lucky enough to return there a few times as invited guests. On our later trips, we’d sleep in a sumptuous bedroom suite on the ground floor of the palace, looked after by liveried footmen and ladies-in-waiting. We’d attend a formal banquet in the ballroom, eating with forks and knives coated in gold. At one point, as we were given a tour, we were told things like “This is our Blue Room,” our guide gesturing into a vast hall that was five times the size of our Blue Room back home. The Queen’s head usher one day would take me, my mother, and the girls through the palace Rose Garden, which contained thousands of flawlessly blooming flowers and occupied nearly an acre of land, making the few rosebushes we so proudly kept outside the Oval Office suddenly seem a tad less impressive. I found Buckingham Palace breathtaking and incomprehensible at the same time.
On that first visit, we were escorted to the Queen’s private apartment and shown into a sitting room where she and Prince Philip stood waiting to receive us. Queen Elizabeth II was eighty-two years old then, diminutive and graceful with a delicate smile and her white hair curled regally away from her forehead. She wore a pale pink dress and a set of pearls and kept a black purse draped properly over one arm. We shook hands and posed for a photo. The Queen politely inquired about our jet lag and invited us to sit down. I don’t remember exactly what we talked about after that—a little bit about the economy and the state of affairs in England, the various meetings Barack had been having.
There’s an awkwardness that comes with just about any formally arranged meeting, but in my experience it’s something you need to consciously work your way past. Sitting with the Queen, I had to will myself out of my own head—to stop processing the splendor of the setting and the paralysis I felt coming face-to-face with an honest-to-goodness icon. I’d seen Her Majesty’s face dozens of times before, in history books, on television, and on currency, but here she was in the flesh, looking at me intently and asking questions. She was warm and personable, and I tried to be the same. The Queen was a living symbol and well practiced at managing it, but she was as human as the rest of us. I liked her immediately.
Later that afternoon, Barack and I floated around at the palace reception, eating canapés with the other G20 leaders and their spouses. I chatted with Angela Merkel of Germany and Nicolas Sarkozy of France. I met the king of Saudi Arabia, the president of Argentina, the prime ministers of Japan and Ethiopia. I did my best to remember who came from which nation and which spouse went with whom, careful not to say too much for fear of getting anything wrong. Overall, it was a dignified, friendly affair and a reminder that even heads of state are capable of talking about their children and joking about the British weather.
At some point toward the end of the party, I turned my head to find that Queen Elizabeth had surfaced at my elbow, the two of us suddenly alone together in the otherwise crowded room. She was wearing a pair of pristine white gloves and appeared just as fresh as she’d been hours earlier when we first met. She smiled up at me.
“You’re so tall,” she remarked, cocking her head.
“Well,” I said, chuckling, “the shoes give me a couple of inches. But yes, I’m tall.”
The Queen then glanced down at the pair of black Jimmy Choos I was wearing. She shook her head.
“These shoes are unpleasant, are they not?” she said. She gestured with some frustration at her own black pumps.
I confessed then to the Queen that my feet were hurting. She confessed that hers hurt, too. We looked at each other then with identical expressions, like, When is all this standing around with world leaders going to finally wrap up? And with this, she busted out with a fully charming laugh.
Forget that she sometimes wore a diamond crown and that I’d flown to London on the presidential jet; we were just two tired ladies oppressed by our shoes. I then did what’s instinctive to me anytime I feel connected to a new person, which is to express my feelings outwardly. I laid a hand affectionately across her shoulder.
I couldn’t have known it in the moment, but I was committing what would be deemed an epic faux pas. I’d touched the Queen of England, which I’d soon learn was apparently not done. Our interaction at the reception was caught on camera, and in the coming days it would be reproduced in media reports all over the world: “A Breach in Protocol!” “Michelle Obama Dares to Hug the Queen!” It revived some of the campaign-era speculation that I was generally uncouth and lacking the standard elegance of a First Lady, and worried me somewhat, too, thinking I’d possibly distracted from Barack’s efforts abroad. But I tried not to let the criticism rattle me. If I hadn’t done the proper thing at Buckingham Palace, I had at least done the human thing. I daresay that the Queen was okay with it, too, because when I touched her, she only pulled closer, resting a gloved hand lightly on the small of my back.
The following day, while Barack went off for a marathon session of meetings on the economy, I went to visit a school for girls. It was a government-funded, inner-city secondary school in the Islington neighborhood, not far from a set of council estates, which is what public-housing projects are called in England. More than 90 percent of the school’s nine hundred students were black or from an ethnic minority; a fifth of them were the children of immigrants or asylum seekers. I was drawn to it because it was a diverse school with limited financial resources and yet had been deemed academically outstanding. I also wanted to make sure that when I visited a new place as First Lady, I really visited it—meaning that I’d have a chance to meet the people who actually lived there, not just those who governed them. Traveling abroad, I had opportunities that Barack didn’t. I could escape the stage-managed multilateral meetings and sit-downs with leaders and find new ways to bring a little extra warmth to those otherwise staid visits. I aimed to do it with every foreign trip, beginning in England.
I wasn’t fully prepared, though, to feel what I did when I set foot inside the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School and was ushered to an auditorium where about two hundred students had gathered to watch some of their peers perform and then hear me speak. The school was named after a pioneering doctor who also became the first female mayor elected in England. The building itself was nothing special—a boxy brick building on a nondescript street. But as I settled into a folding chair onstage and started watching the performance—which included a Shakespeare scene, a modern dance, and a chorus singing a beautiful rendition of a Whitney Houston song—something inside me began to quake. I almost felt myself falling backward into my own past.
You had only to look around at the faces in the room to know that despite their strengths these girls would need to work hard to be seen. There were girls in hijab, girls for whom English was a second language, girls whose skin made up every shade of brown. I knew they’d have to push back against the stereotypes that would get put on them, all the ways they’d be defined before they’d had a chance to define themselves. They’d need to fight the invisibility that comes with being poor, female, and of color. They’d have to work to find their voices and not be diminished, to keep themselves from getting beaten down. They would have to work just to learn.
But their faces were hopeful, and now so was I. For me it was a strange, quiet revelation: They were me, as I’d once been. And I was them, as they could be. The energy I felt thrumming in that school had nothing to do with obstacles. It was the power of nine hundred girls striving.
When the performance was done and I went to the lectern to speak, I could barely contain my emotion. I glanced down at my prepared notes but suddenly had little interest in them. Looking up at the girls, I just began to talk, explaining that though I had come from far away, carrying this strange title of First Lady of the United States, I was more like them than they knew. That I, too, was from a working-class neighborhood, raised by a family of modest means and loving spirit, that I’d realized early on that school was where I could start defining myself—that an education was a thing worth working for, that it would help spring them forward in the world.
At this point, I’d been First Lady for just over two months. In different moments, I’d felt overwhelmed by the pace, unworthy of the glamour, anxious about our children, and uncertain of my purpose. There are pieces of public life, of giving up one’s privacy to become a walking, talking symbol of a nation, that can seem specifically designed to strip away part of your identity. But here, finally, speaking to those girls, I felt something completely different and pure—an alignment of my old self with this new role. Are you good enough? Yes, you are, all of you. I told the students of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson that they’d touched my heart. I told them that they were precious, because they truly were. And when my talk was over, I did what was instinctive. I hugged absolutely every single girl I could reach.
Back home in Washington, spring had arrived. The sun came up earlier and stayed out a little longer each day. I watched as the slope of the South Lawn gradually turned a lush and vibrant green. From the windows of the residence, I could see the red tulips and lavender grape hyacinth that surrounded the fountain at the base of the hill. My staff and I had spent the past two months working to turn my idea for a garden into reality, which hadn’t been easy. For one thing, we’d had to persuade the National Park Service and the White House grounds team to tear up a patch of one of the most iconic lawns in the world. The very suggestion had been met with resistance, initially. It had been decades since a White House Victory Garden had been planted, on Eleanor Roosevelt’s watch, and no one seemed much interested in a reprise. “They think we’re insane,” Sam Kass told me at one point.
Eventually, though, we got our way. We were at first allotted a tiny plot of land tucked away behind the tennis courts, next to a toolshed. To his credit, Sam fought for better real estate, finally securing an L-shaped eleven-hundred-square-foot plot in a sun-splashed part of the South Lawn, not far from the Oval Office and the swing set we’d recently installed for the girls. We coordinated with the Secret Service to make sure our tilling wouldn’t disrupt any of the sensors or sight lines they needed to protect the grounds. We ran tests to determine whether the soil had enough nutrients and didn’t contain any toxic elements like lead or mercury.
And then we were good to go.
Several days after I returned from Europe, I hosted a group of students from Bancroft Elementary School, a bilingual school in the northwestern part of the city. Weeks earlier, we’d used shovels and hoes to prepare the soil. Now the same kids were back to help me do the planting. Our patch of dirt sat not far from the southern fence along E Street, where tourists often congregated to gaze up at the White House. I was glad that this would now be a part of their view.
Or at least I hoped to be glad at some point. Because with a garden you never know for sure what will or won’t happen—whether anything, in fact, will grow. We’d invited the media to cover the planting. We’d invited all the White House chefs to help us, along with Tom Vilsack, Barack’s secretary of agriculture. We’d asked everyone to watch what we were doing. Now we had to wait for the results. “Honestly,” I’d said to Sam before anyone arrived that morning, “this better work.”
That day, I knelt with a bunch of fifth graders as we carefully put seedlings into the ground, patting the dirt into place around the fragile stalks. After being in Europe and having my every outfit dissected in the press (I’d worn a cardigan sweater to meet the Queen, which was almost as scandalous as touching her had been), I was relieved to be kneeling in the dirt in a light jacket and a pair of casual pants. The kids asked me questions, some about vegetables and the tasks at hand, but also things like “Where’s the president?” and “How come he’s not helping?” It took only a little while, though, before most of them seemed to lose track of me, their focus centered instead on the fit of their garden gloves and the worms in the soil. I loved being with children. It was, and would be throughout the entirety of my time in the White House, a balm for my spirit, a way to momentarily escape my First Lady worries, my self-consciousness about constantly being judged. Kids made me feel like myself again. To them, I wasn’t a spectacle. I was just a nice, kinda-tall lady.
As the morning went on, we planted lettuce and spinach, fennel and broccoli. We put in carrots and collard greens and onions and shell peas. We planted berry bushes and a lot of herbs. What would come from it? I didn’t know, the same way I didn’t know what lay ahead for us in the White House, nor what lay ahead for the country or for any of these sweet children surrounding me. All we could do then was put our faith into the effort, trusting that with sun and rain and time, something half-decent would push up through the dirt.
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