Now listening: ‘Becoming’ by Michelle Obama

Michelle Obama describes a scene from her first day of school in which the teacher asks each students to try to read flashcards that have color words on them, such as blue, green, orange, and white. Competitive and proud, the young Michelle reads one after another until she gets stumped on white, even though she knew she knew it. Back at home, she studies up on the color words. The next day, she asks the teacher to test her again. This time, she doesn’t stumble but gets all the words just right.

This story is extraordinary. I don’t think most students would be capable of demanding to be re-tested like that. (At least, I don’t think I would have the wherewithal to speak up like that.) In effect, her act was an assertion of self against the power dynamics of the classroom in order to bolster her own position within those very power dynamics. How was she able to do that? That question hovered over her memoir. Is this an intrinsic part of her character? Or was she taught this? I’m not sure the book answers this questions directly, though Obama also tells the story of how she jumped ahead of her piano lessons to tackle more difficult works, much to the chagrin of her teacher. She also says numerous times about how she is a list-maker and box-checker. That is she believes in herself, is smart, and likes order, and has been that way pretty much all her life. So was asking for the retest an attempt to reclaim that sense of order, by reasserting before others that how she thinks about herself is truly how she is.

A clue to that girl’s tenacity can be found in an episode much later in the memoir, which she describes as having “to use what power I could find inside a situation I never would’ve chosen for myself.” That situation was the media and public’s fixation on her looks when she was First Lady; however, that sentiment could also be seen as the kind of thought process that powered the young Michelle to ask for a new test — her power was to ask the teacher, the situation she never would have chosen was to be seen as less than capable at spelling and color words than she knew she was.

Have you read or listened to “Becoming?” Let me know what you think.


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