Before Michelle Obama cried during her final speech as first lady, I was crying.
The tears came toward the end, when she spoke about her father, Fraser Robinson III, and the hope we should instill in young people that a better life is possible through hard work and education.
"It's the hope of folks like my dad who got up every day to do his job at the city water plant; the hope that one day, his kids would go to college and have opportunities he never dreamed of."
If you don't know the story of Michelle's father, he worked as a pump operator at the Chicago water plant. He was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when she was young. In her speech at the DNC in 2012, Michelle talked about how he was often in pain but managed to go into work every single day.
"When he returned home after a long day's work, my brother and I would stand at the top of the stairs of our little apartment, patiently waiting to greet him, watching as he reached down to lift one leg, and then the other, to slowly climb his way into our arms," she said.
In the same 2012 speech, she mentioned how he helped pay tuition when she went to college. "Every semester, he was determined to pay that bill right on time, even taking out loans when he fell short," she said. "He was so proud to be sending his kids to college, and he made sure we never missed a registration deadline because his check was late."
As she spoke on Friday, ready to leave the White House as one of the most beloved first ladies of all time, I couldn't help but picture her father and see a little bit of my own family. I'm one of hundreds of children who come from a generation of immigrants who fled the civil war in El Salvador in the 1970s. A generation that told their kids, "You will do great things with your life. You will accomplish what I couldn't and more. And if all goes to plan, your kids will do even better."
The key to that success? Education. Going to college was never an issue of if — it was an issue of which one. And once I got there, they helped with tuition, too.
"So for all the young people in this room and those who are watching, know that this country belongs to you — to all of you, from every background and walk of life," said Michelle in her final speech as FLOTUS. "If you or your parents are immigrants, know that you are part of a proud American tradition — the infusion of new cultures, talents, and ideas, generation after generation, that has made us the greatest country on earth."
It was a beautiful message. She also spoke to those who come from low-income families.
"If your family doesn't have much money, I want you to remember that in this country, plenty of folks, including me and my husband, we started out with very little. But with a lot of hard work and a good education, anything is possible. Even becoming president. That's what the American dream is all about."
For many young people, especially young people of color, the idea of the American dream is bullsh*t. You make it to college but then drop out because the university system wasn't made for people like you. Or you graduate and are stuck with years of student loan debt. Or worse, you graduate from college, maybe even magna cum laude, but can't find a place that will hire you because you came to this country undocumented when you were a baby. But that doesn't negate the power of education, its ability to transform the quality of life from one generation to the next, or the joy and pride that comes from your parents' faces when you show them that college diploma you — and they — worked so hard for.
The fact that such a message came from someone like Michelle made it even more powerful. Here stood this Princeton- and Harvard-educated black woman who could be a masterful orator and spit rhymes in the same breath. As her farewell address as first lady, she could have spoken about her Let's Move! initiative or her work with military families — both of which are incredibly important. But her choice to highlight education speaks volumes about its significance.
Michelle ended her speech by saying, "Being your first lady has been the greatest honor of my life, and I hope I made you proud." Indeed, she made the country proud. Someone else she undoubtedly made proud? Her dad, who died in 1991. He probably never in his wildest dreams thought she'd become first lady of the US, but he probably wouldn't have been surprised either.