Michelle Obama: Life's 'greatest honor' was being first lady

WASHINGTON — Her voice breaking and eyes filling with tears, an unusually emotional Michelle Obama said Friday that being first lady "has been the greatest honor of my life" as she bid an early farewell to the White House.

An East Room ceremony honoring the 2017 school counselor of the year, and the work of all school counselors, marked her final event as first lady.

Before the tearful goodbye, there were words of encouragement for young people. Mrs. Obama, as she has done many times in eight years in the White House, urged kids to get the best education they can and then use it to "lead by example with hope, never fear."

"Don't be afraid," she said.

The first lady also praised the "glorious diversity" of people of all faiths, colors and creeds in America as "not a threat to who we are" but as what "makes us who we are." The comment seemed a rebuke of President-elect Donald Trump, who criticized Mexicans, Muslims and others throughout his presidential campaign.

"To the young people out there, do not ever let anyone make you feel like you don't matter or like you don't have a place in our American story, because you do," Mrs. Obama said. "And you have a right to be exactly who you are."

She urged them to get ready to add their voices to the national conversation and "stand up for our proud American values."

Mrs. Obama asked them to remember, when they encounter obstacles and feel like giving up, what she said she and President Barack Obama have talked about since first starting their journey to the White House nearly a decade ago, "and that is the power of hope."

She said hope has allowed the couple to "rise above the voices of doubt and division, of anger and fear, that we have faced in our own lives and in the life of this country."

Mrs. Obama ended the appearance by thanking the school counselors standing behind her, including Terri Tchorzynski, the 2017 honoree from the Calhoun Area Career Center in Battle Creek, Michigan, for their hard work and dedication. She has said school counselors often are the "deciding factor" in whether a student decides to attend college.

"Being your first lady has been the greatest honor of my life, and I hope I've made you proud," Mrs. Obama said.

The first lady has said she will continue, after she and her husband leave on Jan. 20, to work on issues she championed as first lady. They include education, fighting childhood obesity and support for military families.

© The Associated Press Michelle Obama gives her final speech as first lady at the 2017 School Counselor of the Year ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Friday, Jan. 6, 2017. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Michelle Obama spreads message of diversity in her last speech as first lady

Michelle Obama extolled the value of the country’s “glorious diversity” in an emotional address on Friday, using her last speech as first lady to reiterate the outgoing administration’s message that immigrants and religious minorities add to America’s strengths.

At an annual event honoring school counselors in the White House’s East Room, Obama urged young people to take pride in their varying backgrounds and seek an education to better the country. She teared up at the end of her remarks, describing being first lady as the “greatest honor of my life.”

“As I end my time in the White House, I can think of no better message to send to our young people in my last official remarks as first lady,” Obama said. “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.”

“Our glorious diversity, our diversity as the faiths and colors and creeds, that is not a threat to who we are — it makes us who we are,” she said, after citing immigration and religious diversity as proud American traditions. “To the young people here, and the young people out there, do not ever let anyone make you feel like you don't matter, or like you don't have a place in our American story, because you do, and you have a right to be exactly who you are.”

“But I also want to be very clear,” she continued. “This right isn’t just handed to you. No, this right has to be earned every single day. You cannot take your freedoms for granted. Just like generations who have come before you, you have to do your part to preserve and protect those freedoms, and that starts right now, when you're young. Right now, you need to be preparing yourself to add your voice to our national conversation.”

Obama did not mention the election or Donald Trump in her remarks, but the speech was an implicit rebuke of the message that carried the president-elect to his surprise victory. Trump campaigned on a hard-line promise to curtail immigration and at points disparaged minority groups, including Muslims and Mexicans.

Hillary Clinton, whom the Obamas supported and Trump defeated in a major upset, had run on a platform that also focused on promoting diversity, as encapsulated by her slogan, “Stronger Together.” Some people see her loss as a rejection of that ideology.

Michelle Obama, though, remains hugely popular, and her fans cite her characteristic restraint in responding to political opponents as a reason for admiring her. She coined the oft-used phrase “when they go low, we go high” to describe her philosophy toward reacting to attacks during the 2016 campaign.

Obama’s speech on Friday, at an event about education, focused largely on speaking to students and praising the counselors there to be honored. Its underlying message, though, was still political.

“Lead by example with hope. Never fear,” Obama said to young people in the audience. “And know that I will be with you, rooting for you and working to support you for the rest of my life, and that is true, I know, for every person who is here today, and for educators and advocates all across this nation who get up every day and work their hearts out to lift up our young people.”

Her closing message was “thank you”: “Thank you for everything you do for our kids, and for our country,” Obama said. “Being your first lady has been the greatest honor of my life, and I hope I've made you proud.”

Michelle Obama gave her last speech as first lady — with a few tears, and a plea for ‘hope’

Michelle Obama began to cry as she delivered her final public remarks from the White House on Friday morning at an event celebrating school counselors. Her message, which was directed toward young people, was one of hope and inclusion.

“It is our fundamental belief in the power of hope that has allowed us to rise above the voices of doubt and division . . . that we have faced in our own lives and in the life of this country,” Obama said as her voice cracked. “Our hope that if we work hard and believe in ourselves then we can be whatever we dream regardless of the limitations that others would place on us.

“That’s the kind of hope that every single one of us, politicians, parents, preachers, need to be providing for our kids, because that is what moves this country forward — our hope for the future.”

The first lady, who campaigned energetically for Hillary Clinton, was clearly disappointed by the recent election results; her emphasis that “hope” is what makes the country move forward appears to be a repudiation of President-elect Donald Trump’s campaign slogan, asserting that he will “Make America great again.”

The school counselor awards ceremony, which Obama began hosting in the White House in 2015, is reflective of the first lady’s focus on young people and opening the White House to groups who typically aren’t invited to the historic mansion.

She became tearful near the end of her speech, discussing the hopes of her father, a municipal water plant worker in Chicago, that his children would be successful. She said she also wanted young people to know they belong in America, which some have questioned following the divisive presidential election.

“No matter where you are from, no matter how much money your parents have, no matter how they worship or who they love or what language they speak at home, they have a place in this country,” she said of the nation’s children.

“This country belongs to you, to all of you, from every background and walk of life. If you or your parents are immigrants, know that you are part of a proud American tradition. . . . If your family doesn’t have much money, I want you to remember that plenty of folks — including me and my husband — started out with very little. But with a good education and a lot of hard work, anything is possible.”

Obama began her remarks lightheartedly by shouting out the celebrity supporters of her educational initiatives — University of Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh, the singer Usher, comedian Jay Pharoah and reality TV personalities Andy Cohen and La La Anthony — who sat in the audience. “As one of my staff said, ‘You roll pretty deep,’ ” she joked.

Obama credited them with using their “star power to inspire young people.” Several of the celebrities had earlier attended the first lady’s “College Signing Day,” a hoopla-filled festival to honor students for their high academic achievements in the same way that future pro athletes are feted.

President Obama has a farewell address in their home town of Chicago scheduled for Tuesday, but Michelle Obama said the education-focused White House event was an ideal setting for her final message. School counselors from every state stood behind her as she credited them with inspiring young people and charged them to continue their work. “You see the promise in each of your students and . . . you do it all in the face of some overwhelming challenges,” she said. “You stick with students in their darkest moments.”

Obama said that she plans to continue encouraging young people to pursue higher education and that she has been building toward life after the White House, considering opportunities to continue her advocacy.

She leaves the White House as one of the nation’s most popular political figures, her approval ratings approaching 70 percent, and her final interviews have been punctuated with questions about her future. While she is looking forward to a private life, and has said she plans to take a warm-weather vacation following the inauguration, she has already begun constructing her post-White House team and is considering her next move. She is expected to write a memoir but has not announced any firm commitments.

Her final talk-show appearance as first lady will be Wednesday on Jimmy Fallon’s “Tonight Show.”

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