First Lady Michelle Obama was moved to tears after hearing a group of young poets share their work at the White House on Thursday, last week. Standing underneath a portrait of Abraham Lincoln in the State Dining Room, the five 2016 National Student Poets read their work as Obama sat in the audience listening. Their poems touched on a wide range of subjects, including the effects of Hurricane Katrina, the loss of a native language and the false pretenses of religious radicalism.
Michelle Obama gave a shout-out to an Indian-American student, one of two from the community, to be recognized in the 2016 National Student Poets Program, a national competition that celebrated the winners at the White House Sept. 8.
The class of 2016 young poets included five students, two of whom are 17 year old Indian-Americans, Maya Eashwaran of Alpharetta, Georgia, and Gopal Raman of Dallas, Texas.
This is the fifth year of this program initiated by the Obama White House. Over the five years, the program received more than 70,000 submissions from applicants, the First Lady said, noting that “competition is fierce.”
Recognizing that it needed hard work and “a whole lot of courage” to let out one’s inner thoughts and rawest emotions, Michelle Obama singled out Eashwaran.
“Maya – where’s Maya? You put it best. These are your words, I’m told: “On the stage, there is no way to leave unnoticed.” Did you say that?” Obama asked. Eashwaran replied in the affirmative.
“… if you can summon that courage and go through draft after draft of writing — which is painful, I know – and then finally stand up on this stage and speak your truth – well, here is what we know: After all of that, you are ready for anything. That’s the beauty of it,” Obama said, adding, “You’re ready to graduate from high school and go to college, and chase after whatever dream you have. If you can be here, you can do anything, right? Small steps. And I believe that every young person in this country deserves those kinds of opportunities.”
After the Class of 2016 read their work, poets who had the honor in previous years gave a group performance on how the National Student Poets Program had changed them. When it was over, Obama came to the lectern and said, “I’m going to cry.”
“If we ever wonder whether what we do makes a difference, it does,” she said, holding back tears. “Thank you, everyone, for all of this, thank you guys, I’m so proud of you.”
During her introductory remarks, Obama spoke about the power of poetry, even reminding the students that before Lin-Manuel Miranda opened the hit musical “Hamilton,” he performed a number from the show at a White House poetry event in 2009.
For the first time, the annual event for the National Student Poets also highlighted the work of the Spoken Word Ambassador Program, meant to “recognize students who demonstrate an exceptional ability to tell stories, to critically and creatively analyze their worlds, and to present that information in a way that is accessible to large and diverse audiences,” according to the White House.
Obama said the students were “living, breathing proof of the power of poetry to transform people’s lives. We all know that being a kid today can be a little hard. It can be tough, especially when you’re a teenager and you’re dealing with emotions and experiences that can be overwhelming, to say the least,” she said. “It’s tempting at this age to just close down and shut out the rest of the world, especially when the world can feel so ugly at times. But for so many people, poetry can help them open up.”
The National Student Poets Program recognizes five poets in grades 10 and 11 and their original work each year. The program’s website describes it as “the country’s highest honor for young poets.” Obama said Thursday that the program had received over 70,000 submissions and chosen 20 poets since 2011.