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Michelle Obama sprinkles pupils with her magic dust

Helen Ward watches the former first lady wow, inspire and comfort pupils in an emotional return to a London secondary

Michelle Obama

Helen Ward watches the former first lady wow, inspire and comfort pupils in an emotional return to a London secondary

Michelle Obama’s message to the hundreds of schoolgirls who heard her talk today was quite clear.

She was not a “miracle child, that had magic dust sprinkled on me”; she has been helped to get where she is, and she, in turn, wants to help others.

But for those teenagers sitting in an ordinary London school hall on a wet Monday afternoon, Ms Obama was, if not a miracle, perhaps something even better – she was a world figure who cared about them.

And the love they had for the former first lady has been very publicly returned.

As the lights were dimmed in the hall at Elizabeth Garrett Anderson girls’ school in Islington, the anticipation grew until the atmosphere was more like a pop concert than an assembly.

To wild cheers and applause, Ms Obama walked on stage to declare that she wanted to thank them – because it was the girls she had met on previous visits to EGA and another London girls’ comprehensive, Mulberry in East London, that “moved, touched and inspired” her.

Pupils from both EGA and Mulberry were in the audience to listen to Ms Obama talking about the importance of hard work and giving back.

“I am the product of other people’s generosity,” she said. “And the expectation of myself is that I give it back…I’m not here to compete with people, I’m here to continue to lift people up.

“I’m hoping the support I’ve shown you and others has shown you – you will find it in you to find it in you to show that to someone else…Maybe now is not the time, but at some point in your life when you get to a place where you have the space, I hope you make that time.”

Michelle Obama 'is an inspiration'

In her memoir Becoming, Ms Obama describes the impact that visiting EGA in 2009 had on her. She had been just two months into the role of first lady and she had felt “overwhelmed” by the pace of life in that position.

But she describes her visit to EGA as a turning point: “Here, finally, speaking to these 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 EGA that they’d touched my heart. I told them they were precious, because they truly were,” she writes.

Jo Dibb, executive headteacher of EGA, said today that when she read about EGA in the book she cried. “I was so moved that we as a school had had that impact on the work she did as first lady,” she explained.

During her time as first lady, Ms Obama backed education initiatives and her Global Girls Alliance, which aims to empower adolescent girls around the world, has recently been relaunched.

And today Ms Obama said: “I absolutely believe that education is key not just for young people but for people in general – knowledge, the opportunity to mature, to try new things, to be open to different cultures. A lot of problems we have in the world come from a lack of knowledge...if we want to solve any major issue you can think about – climate change, terrorism, poverty, inequality – it starts with education.”

After an hour discussing how to make a change in the world, the need for women to support each other and the importance of hope, Ms Obama left to a rapturous standing ovation.

For Letrishka Anthony, 25, who as a Year 10 student at EGA had given a presentation to the former first lady when she first visited, the experience had been “incredible”.

Ms Anthony now has a master's degree in drug discovery and development and is working in a drug development company and had been invited back to her former school today to meet Ms Obama.

She said: “We need role models like Michelle Obama, who are breaking barriers and showing us our potential. She is someone really trying to make a difference in a lot of young women’s lives, and she is doing that.”

So while Ms Obama may not have been sprinkled with magic dust, she certainly seems to have that effect on others. And that is not her only gift. “She is an amazing hugger,” said Ms Anthony. “She makes you feel comforted. She is super genuine.”

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