This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Becoming" by Michelle Obama. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.
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What were Michelle Obama’s teenage years like? What qualities set her apart from other kids her age?
Michelle Obama admits she was oddly mature for her age and she credits that to her parents. As a teenager, she was serious and introverted and was even put in the “gifted” class at school.
Continue on to learn more about Michelle Obama’s teenage years.
Michelle Obama’s Teenage Years (1970s)
These chapters of Becoming focus on Michelle and her brother Craig as they begin to grow into teenagers, learn about life’s risks and responsibilities, and come to grips with the harsh reality of racial discrimination. In these years, Michelle Obama’s teenage years, she begins to learn that there is more than one version of Black identity—that being Black isn’t tied to a single mode of speech, thought, or action—and that it’s up to her to create who she wants to be.
Learning to Be Prepared
When Michelle was in fifth grade, she and her brother learned a hard lesson about life’s uncertainty. One of her classmates died in a house fire, a too-common tragedy in South Shore’s aging buildings. Because most households didn’t have smoke detectors, entire families sometimes perished.
Michelle and Craig attended the boy’s funeral, and Craig, who was now a teenager, was deeply upset. He had always been a protective big brother to Michelle, but now life’s risks had become more apparent. He decided his family must have an emergency plan in case of a house fire. He was especially concerned about his father, Fraser, who had little or no agility because of his multiple sclerosis.
Craig and Michelle began conducting fire drills at home. Fraser was uncomfortable with Craig taking on the role of family protector. Fraser didn’t like feeling helpless—he never missed a day of work because of his disability. But he reluctantly participated in the drills and even allowed Craig to practice dragging his prone body to the stairwell.
Craig and Michelle realized there was no guarantee that they could save their family in a fire, but they were comforted by having an emergency plan.
Michelle looks back on this period and realizes that although she and Craig may have seemed oddly serious and mature for their ages, those qualities came from their parents’ lessons. Fraser and Marian had instilled in their children the virtues of planning, preparation, and hard work to achieve mastery over life’s circumstances.
Michelle Comes Out of Her Shell
Exposed to frequent extended-family barbecues and visits to her jazz-loving grandfather’s house, Michelle became less introverted and more comfortable around large groups of people. Every Sunday, the Robinsons visited the “other” side of the family—Fraser’s parents, whom the kids called Dandy and Grandma, and Fraser’s three younger siblings. Michelle and Craig spent time with their father’s younger brothers, who wore leather jackets and bell bottoms and talked about Malcolm X and the Black power movement. Through their conversations, Michelle began to realize the world was much bigger than her South Shore neighborhood.
When Michelle was in seventh grade, her mother again intervened to improve her education. A newspaper wrote a scathing article about her school, calling it run-down and poorly managed, stating that it contributed to the neighborhood’s “ghetto” mentality.
The principal defended his school and community, and Michelle’s mother Marian supported him. An active PTA member, Marian lobbied for positive changes at the school and volunteered to chaperone at her children’s school events. Despite the “white flight” happening all around her, Marian believed in her neighborhood and the people who chose to stay there. She believed in fixing what was wrong rather than fleeing.
The school began a new program that grouped students by ability, and Michelle was moved into the “gifted” classroom. She thrived in this enriched learning environment—she worked on independent projects, attended writing workshops, and took field trips to the local community college. As always, her mother encouraged her every step of the way.
Becoming a Teenager
At age 14, Michelle grew into a stereotypical teenager. She stopped sharing every small detail of her life with her parents and started keeping her thoughts to herself. She became interested in boys and experienced her first kiss on a stone bench outside her parents’ house.
Michelle slowly gained independence. She rode the bus across town by herself to take jazz and acrobatics dance lessons. She learned to be wary of her surroundings and look out for her own safety. She viewed herself as a grown-up, or at least a partial grown-up.
Fraser and Marian decided it was time Michelle had more privacy at home. They converted the back porch of their house into a bedroom for Craig. The parents moved into the space that used to belong to the children; Michelle moved into their bedroom. She loved having this new room all to herself.
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Here's what you'll find in our full Becoming summary :
- How Michelle Obama went from the South Side of Chicago to the White House
- Why much of her success came from her being determined from a young age
- How Michelle Obama continues to push herself and discover new opportunities