Michelle Obama and Alicia Keys at the White House

Michelle Obama and Alicia Keys

It may be too late for fictional characters “Mister” and “Pete,” but if Mrs. Obama has her way, no more minority kids will fall through the black hole that, for many poor inner city kids, is the U.S. educational system. Not on her watch.

On Wednesday, following a screening and discussion about the based-on-a-true-life film The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete, produced by singer and philanthropist Alicia Keys (who was also in attendance), the First Lady promised an audience of teachers, education advocates and high school guidance counselors that saving disadvantaged kids from the pitfalls of the nation’s fiscally lopsided school system would be the pillar of her work—in addition to all her other causes—her last three years in the White House.

Mrs. Obama’s voice cracked as she recounted heartbreaking scenes from the coming-of-age film—starring Jeffrey Wright, Anthony Mackie and Jennifer Hudson—that hit too close to home.

“I wept,” she admitted, recounting scenes from the film about a scared and resourceless 9- and-13-year-old from Brooklyn who are left to fend for themselves one summer after their mothers are carted away by authorities.

“The minute I got done watching this film, I said I am going to screen this at the White House,” she said about the October release. She’d reviewed Mister and Pete over the summer. Mrs. Obama acknowledged that, for many of the screening’s attendees, “This is the reality that you see every day in your classrooms and in your communities. Many of you work with kids just like Mister and Pete.”

The First Lady’s talk of creating better, more equal educational opportunities for all of the nation’s kids ties directly into President Obama’s educational objective for 2020. “The plan is for America to once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world,” she said. “In support of this, the White House is hosting university presidents from across the country at the White House today, and challenging them to recruit and support even more underserved young students at their schools.

“For the rest of my time as First Lady, I am going to be doing my very best to promote this effort by talking directly with young people,” pledged Mrs. Obama. “The one thing I can bring to this is the message that we can give directly to young people. I’m going to be conveying a central truth, telling them that they have everything they need to succeed already, but they still have to be committed to getting their education.”

‘For the rest of my time as First Lady, I am going to be doing my very best to promote this effort by talking directly with young people,’ pledged Mrs. Obama.

But the truth is, it’s been a long time since the country achieved the president’s lofty goal. In 1990, the U.S. ranked first in the world in four-year degree attainment among 25- to 34-year-olds; today, it ranks 12th. There’s also, of course, a tremendous college attainment gap, as high school graduates from the wealthiest families in the country are almost guaranteed to go on to college, while just over half of the high school graduates from the poorest families (read, minority) do. And while more than half of college students graduate within six years, the completion rate for low-income students is just 25 percent.

They’re daunting odds that the First Lady still thinks the nation—particularly the children impacted—can overcome, if only they believe they can.

“I want these young people to understand that their struggles can actually be a source of strength,” said the Southside Chicago native, “and even a source of pride. They’ve overcome obstacles and learned skills that many of us will never have, that many of us need to get the real work done. I remind these kids, if you can go through all that you’ve already gone through…

“You’ve lost people you love to violence and drugs, she continued. “You have to have a strategy just to get to school safe. You’re smart enough to figure out how to stay out of gangs. You’ve seen your family fighting just to get by and you still keep moving… If you can do all of that, then certainly you can fill out a FAFSA form.”

Mrs. Obama smiled. “That is not the intimidating part of life. If you can do that, then surely you can get up in the morning and get to class, get to school on time and pay attention,” she insisted. “That’s not the hard part. Surely [kids] can seek out some adults in their lives, because there’s always one adult who will move mountains for a kid that wants something. You all are those people,” she said, nodding to the audience.  

More than 100 college presidents were expected to gather at the White House Thursday for a rare, day-long academic summit presided over by the President and First Lady.