On Tuesday evening, First Lady Michelle Obama delivered a powerful commencement address at King College Prep High School in Chicago, Illinois. Mrs. Obama gave the speech at the Chicago high school that won the White House’s first-ever “FAFSA Call to Action” video challenge and was also the school that Hadiya Pendleton, a 15-year-old who shot to death in Chicago’s South Side just days after marching in President Obama’s second inaugural parade, attended.
An empty chair donning flower and covered in purple, Hadiya’s favorite color, was present at the ceremony where the young girls family was presented with a class ring, cap, and gown as they mourned her absence.
The 15-year-olds passing, which came just weeks after the Sandy Hook massacre, visibly impacted both the President and First Lady. Mrs. Obama attended Hadiya’s funeral, and when addressing their similar upbringing, she tearfully said, “Hadiya Pendleton was me, and I was her.” President Obama mentioned Hadiya’s passing in a push for gun control during his 2013 State of the Union Address, pointing out her parents in the audience as Mrs. Obama’s personal guest.
In her speech at King College Prep, the First Lady spoke of her early life growing up in Chicago’s South Side and how being raised in such a close-knit, yet widely looked down upon community impacted her life.
“Graduates, tonight, I want you to understand that every scar that you have is a reminder not just that you got hurt, but that you survived. And as painful as they are, those holes we all have in our hearts are what truly connect us to each other,” Mrs. Obama told the crowd. “They are the spaces we can make for other people’s sorrow and pain, as well as their joy and their love so that eventually, instead of feeling empty, our hearts feel even bigger and fuller.”
“So it’s okay to feel the sadness and the grief that comes with those losses. But instead of letting those feelings defeat you, let them motivate you. Let them serve as fuel for your journey,” she continued.
At a later point in the speech, Mrs. Obama recanted some of her personal struggles, telling the crowd, “Now, my Dad didn’t live to see me in the White House. He passed away from complications from his illness when I was in my twenties. And, graduates, let me tell you, he is the hole in my heart. His loss is my scar.”
“But let me tell you something, his memory drives me forward every single day of my life,” she continued. “Every day, I work to make him proud. Every day, I stay hungry, not just for myself, but for him and for my mom and for all the kids I grew up with who never had the opportunities that my family provided for me.”
Mrs. Obama encouraged the graduates not to let circumstances control their lives, but to make the most of what they are given. She told the young graduates how fortunate they are to have attended King College Prep, to have the support of their community, and to have made it to graduation, unlike their classmate, Hadiya, who was “taken from us too soon.”
“If Hadiya’s friends and family could survive the heartbreak and pain; if they could found organizations to honor her unfulfilled dreams; if they could inspire folks across this country to wear orange in to protest gun violence — then I know you all can live your life with the same determination and joy that Hadiya lived her life. I know you all can dig deep and keep on fighting to fulfill your own dreams,” the First Lady encouraged the crowd.
While homicides in Chicago were down last year, the number of shootings rose. Garry McCarthy, Chicago’s Police Superintendent, cited gang activity and illegal guns as the reason for the increase. Chicago has the strictest gun-control laws in the country.