Michelle Obama’s Childhood: Young Overachiever

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 event awoke Michelle Obama’s ambitious nature? Why does Michelle credit her mother for her success?

Michelle Obama has been an overachiever since she can remember. Even in kindergarten, she strived to get that gold star and she even skipped the second grade because she was too advanced for the class.

Continue on to learn more about Michelle Obama’s childhood.

Michelle Obama’s Childhood

Michelle LaVaughn Robinson was born in January 1964. She grew up in Chicago in one of the poorer blocks of a racially mixed, working-class neighborhood called South Shore. Michelle’s parents rented a small apartment on the second floor of a house owned by Michelle’s great-aunt Robbie. Her parents slept in the single bedroom; Michelle and her older brother Craig shared the living room. Michelle and Craig were surrounded by extended family members throughout their early years. Great-aunt Robbie and her husband lived on the first floor, and Michelle’s grandparents and cousins lived only a few blocks away. Here are some of the most important part of Michelle Obama’s childhood.

Michelle’s Introduction to Ambition

Michelle met her own competitive streak in kindergarten in 1969. When the teacher quizzed the students on reading the names of colors—red, blue, yellow, black, and so on—Michelle was stumped by the word “white.” Two of her classmates could read all the words, and the teacher awarded them gold-foil star stickers. Mortified that she didn’t get a star, Michelle’s natural ambition kicked in. 

That evening, she practiced reading her list of color words until she knew them all by heart, and the next day at school, she asked her teacher for a second chance. At first, her teacher said no—the class had other things to do—but Michelle persisted. This time she earned her gold star. 

Second Grade: Michelle’s Mother Advocates for Her Schooling

In the second grade, Michelle ran into a problem at school. Her teacher couldn’t manage her classroom, taught the students little or nothing, and just didn’t seem to care—and Michelle took note of it all. She complained about the teacher to her mother, who finally went to the school and petitioned to remove Michelle from the class. The principal placed Michelle and several other high-achieving students in a third-grade class while the rest of her classmates were left to languish with the bad teacher.

At the time, Michelle was just happy to be moved to the third grade. But looking back, she considers her mother’s advocacy a life-changing event. If she had stayed in that poor learning environment in second grade, her education might have been stunted. Michelle reflects that kids can see when they’re being devalued. They know when adults are giving their best to them and when they’re not. Unfortunately, many kids don’t have a mother like Michelle did—someone they can talk to and who can advocate for them. Instead, they respond by acting out. But it’s not their fault; it’s the fault of the adults who aren’t giving them 100 percent.  

Fifth Grade: Introduction to Toughness   

Michelle often chose to play alone at home with her Barbie dolls and alphabet blocks. She was a naturally fastidious kid; she noticed the way other children mistreated their toys, and she played alone to keep hers in pristine condition.. 

But Michelle’s preference for solitude concerned her mother, who wanted Michelle to play with other children, too. Marian hoped that Michelle would become as extroverted as her brother, a skilled basketball player whom everybody liked. 

Encouraged by her mother and hoping to emulate her popular brother, Michelle decided she’d try to join a clique of neighborhood kids who played together outside. But the ring leader, a bully named DeeDee, made cruel remarks about Michelle and kept her out of the group. 

Michelle determined that she had to earn DeeDee’s respect. She tried reasoning with her, but it had no effect. One day, Michelle got into a fistfight with DeeDee. Having had some experience boxing with her brother, Michelle threw a few good punches and won. With her victory, Michelle earned DeeDee’s respect and became a part of the group.  

Michelle Obama’s Childhood: Young Overachiever

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Michelle Obama's "Becoming" at Shortform.

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

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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