The teenager's letter and Obama's big speech

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The Independent US

If Ms Bethea, 14, looked awe-struck beside Michelle Obama last night as the President read from a letter she had written to members of Congress about the dilapidated state of her junior high school, who could possibly blame her? Being on the national stage had surely never entered her dreams before.

J.V. Martin School lies in the so-called 'Corridor of Shame' in South Carolina with some of the most neglected rural schools in the country. President Obama visited it twice during his election campaign. But it was a visit to the school earlier this month by a reporter from the Chicago Tribune that led to Ty'Sheoma's big night.

Invited into her class, the reporter, Howard Witt, asked the bewildered students what they knew of the battle President Obama was waging at the time to have his fiscal stimulus plan passed and what it might mean for schools like theirs. Only Ms Bethea raised her hand. "All I know is that the Congress might not agree that we need help and they might deny the president the money he needs to help us," she replied.

After school that day, as Mr Witt explained it yesterday, the young woman walked to the town library "sat down in front of a computer and typed out a single-spaced letter that began, 'Dear Congress of the United States'". It went on, in mildly battered English, "People are starting to see my school as an hopeless, uneducated school which we are not. We finally want to prove to the world that we have an chance in life just like other schools and we can feel good about what we are doing because of the conditions we are in now we can not succeed in anything."

The next day she asked a teacher for help getting stamps to send it to Washington. Days later, it made its way to Mr Obama's desk.

For the other "ordinary American" singled out by Mr Obama, it was a quiet act of generosity last year that earned him a place in the President's address. Miami banker Leonard Abess shared a $60 million windfall with 399 current and 72 former workers at the bank where he remains CEO.

"Those people who joined me and stayed with me at the bank with no promise of equity - I always thought some day I'm going to surprise them," he told his local newspaper, the Miami Herald. He certainly did that, giving some them as much as $100,000 as a reward for their loyalty.

Mr Abess' own good fortune came when the Spanish bank Caja Madrid paid $927 million for City National Bank of Florida last November. He could have kept the money he was due as a large shareholder in City. But "I sure as heck don't need it," he told the Herald.

Those who watched the moment in the Obama speech may have noticed Geneva Lawson, 51, next to Mr Abess. She was also a guest of Michelle as one of the lucky beneficiaries of her boss's largesse. By this morning, she will be back at her branch in southern Florida where she is the safe-deposit custodian.

Though labelled by the President as an "ordinary American" who had done an out-of-the-ordinary thing, Mr Abess is in fact a prominent figure in South Florida, as the Miami branch director of the Federal Reserve and a well-known philanthropist whose passion is ecological conservation.