Michelle Obama calls on Tower Hamlets schoolgirls to become women who will inspire

The First Lady visited a school in one of Britain's most deprived boroughs

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The Independent Online

In the school hall, deputy head teacher Jill Tuffee asked the girls to welcome their guests: “Our new friends from the US Embassy, and the Secret Service...”

Ms Tuffee paused.

“Those,” she said, “are things I thought I would never be saying in my teaching career…”

But they really were there: the beefy men with earpieces, ruining the tough guy image by smiling sweetly and chatting politely to the girls. Nothing, it seemed, could be ordinary about this assembly at Mulberry School for Girls, Tower Hamlets, East London.

There was the entourage: International Development Secretary Justine Greening, speechifying about the need to educate girls worldwide; Julia Gillard, the ex-Prime Minister of Australia, sharing the stage for the question and answer session.

But nothing could beat the leading lady: “Michelle Obama, the First Lady of the United States, one of the great inspirational women of our time, a role model for us here at Mulberry School for Girls,” to borrow the introduction from Vanessa Ogden, the head.

 

About 600 girls, many of Bangladeshi origin, many wearing headscarves, at a comprehensive rated outstanding by Ofsted but in one of Britain’s most deprived boroughs, offered a whooping, deafening standing ovation.

In the sports hall down the corridor, the other 800 of the school’s pupils, watching via a live link, were similarly thrilled.

Beaming her megawatt smile upon the assembly, Mrs Obama praised “the smart, accomplished young women of Mulberry School”.

“I am not just talking about the girls here [in the assembly hall],” she explained. “I am sending my love out to all the girls watching from the sports hall. We love you.”

Mrs Obama was officially there to announce $180m (£115m) of funding from her Let Girls Learn initiative and from the British Government for the education of girls in the Democratic Republic of Congo. But there was also lots of inspirational stuff.

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Michelle Obama speaks with former Australia Prime Minister Julia Gillard as they take part in a question and answer session at Mulberry School for Girls (AP)

“My story is your story,” she told the girls, talking about growing up a black, working-class woman, before defying the odds and going to Harvard. “Maybe you have heard of the tutors that wealthier students can afford. Maybe you read the news and what folks say about your religion, and wonder whether people will ever see beyond the headscarf to who you really are.

“But here’s the thing. With an education from this amazing school, you have everything you need to rise above the noise and fulfil every one of your dreams… I am looking at you, and I see surgeons, barristers… women who will inspire, not just in Tower Hamlets, but around the world. If we get our education, we can lift ourselves up to heights we never imagined.”

The world needed the Mulberry girls to “do that outreach”, to be the role models who encouraged girls everywhere into education, because, you know, “one of those girls could have the cure for cancer”.

The rhetoric soared. The tears very nearly flowed. They too felt the love, judging by the second, even more whoop-heavy standing ovation. She came among them, offering pupils hugs and kisses on the cheek.

If only she could have stayed forever. But there was some bloke called Cameron to meet, in Downing Street. A last megawatt smile and the First Lady had left the building, along with Ms Tuffee’s new security service friends.

Was it just the fuzzy, emotional glow, or would Tower Hamlets never be quite the same again?

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