The schoolchildren who found a way into Michelle Obama's heart

White House opens its doors to 10 Islington pupils as personal guests of the First Lady

Terri Judd
Friday 12 February 2010 01:00

When Emmanuel Davies and Mahawa Jalooh emigrated to the UK from Sierra Leone, they could hardly have imagined that their daughter would one day visit the White House as a personal guest of the First Lady.

But during her half-term next week 15-year-old Nanah Colly-Davies will be doing just that – as part of a select group of teenagers who have been invited by Michelle Obama to enter the hallowed halls of the American presidential palace. Yesterday, the wide-eyed schoolgirl tripped over her words as she spoke with unabashed glee at the prospect.

"I will be quite nervous just going into the White House. I have heard it is so clean, so nice, and the people are really glamorous. My heart will be thumping really hard," she said.

The visit on Thursday is proof that President Barack Obama's wife has not forgotten Nanah's school in Islington, north London, which she visited in April last year. While her husband was among the world leaders attending the G20 summit, she dropped in to inspire 200 of the pupils at Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Girls Secondary, a school that takes in some of the most disadvantaged youngsters in the country but has an excellent record for improving results and teaching students that they can achieve "without limits".

It was Mrs Obama's first international public appearance and her warmth and spontaneity appears to have had an almost mesmerising effect on the comprehensive. Ten months later, teachers and pupils alike speak in reverent tones of the woman whose fleeting visit made such an impact when she spoke about how a young black girl from the wrong side of the tracks could make it so far.

"It was incredibly moving and really inspiring. Everybody was completely touched," recalled deputy head Sarah Beagley. "She said to the girls, 'There is injustice in the world and you have a responsibility as the next generation to close the gap, but you must work hard.' It was perfect," said Ms Beagley.

It seems that the love affair is mutual. Mrs Obama, who was visibly choked at the girls' open adoration, still keeps a picture of that day on her desk and has extended a White House invitation to 10 children from Islington. Nanah, who was in the audience that day, patently cannot wait to meet her idol again. Wriggling in her pink and grey school uniform, her face animated, she explained: "I like her because she doesn't think she is God; she is herself, and always seems so humble. But she went to Princeton and Harvard [Ivy League universities], which is really amazing."

As part of Black History Month, Islington's Ethnic Minority Achievement Service runs an annual essay competition across its secondary schools, with winners from each one being invited to Washington DC. But this is the first time the tour of the capital will include the White House itself.

Nanah's essay on the Empire Windrush, the ship that brought the first large group of Caribbean immigrants to the UK after the Second World War, and her examination of the Notting Hill race riots of 1958, won her a place on the shortlist. But it was her enthusiasm and passion for her subject in front of US interviewers that guaranteed her a place among the winners.

Her parents, she said, did not believe her when she first rushed home to tell them about it: "When I entered the competition I wanted to learn about black UK history, but I didn't think I would win. This is the start of everything for me. I want to achieve. I want to be successful and this shows I can do it.

"I remember Mrs Obama saying, 'Only you can control your destiny.' Some people say you can't do it because of your skin colour, but that's not true. If you really want something, you must grab it and try your hardest."

So this Saturday she will head off with the other nine winners. "There are six girls and four boys going," she said, adding with a confident grin that would no doubt win the approval of her heroine: "Shows that women are taking over the world."

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