Sharing life lessons and career advice, Obama connects with Chicago high school students

Obama at Hyde Park Academy
Former President Barack Obama speaks to 450 high school students in the auditorium of Hyde Park Academy Thursday on Chicago's South Side. He acknowledged that being in your late teens is a weird space. “You don't really like people telling you what to do. And your parents are just annoying all the time because they're still treating you like a kid and you feel like you shouldn't be treated that way," Obama said, drawing big applause from the students. Provided courtesy of The Obama Foundation
Obama at Hyde Park Academy
Former President Barack Obama speaks to 450 high school students in the auditorium of Hyde Park Academy Thursday on Chicago's South Side. He acknowledged that being in your late teens is a weird space. “You don't really like people telling you what to do. And your parents are just annoying all the time because they're still treating you like a kid and you feel like you shouldn't be treated that way," Obama said, drawing big applause from the students. Provided courtesy of The Obama Foundation

Sharing life lessons and career advice, Obama connects with Chicago high school students

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Many of the students at Hyde Park Academy High School on Chicago’s South Side were just toddlers when Barack Obama became the country’s first Black president, but they greeted him with a hero’s welcome Thursday on their home turf.

Addressing nearly 450 students in the school’s auditorium, Obama spoke about his upbringing and the unlikely career road that ultimately led to the White House. He stood on stage for about an hour, fielding questions the students had voted on to ask him.

“You are not bound by whatever the circumstances are in which you’re coming up. You’re as smart … as talented, as gifted as anybody else. But the question is going to be: do you learn from your mistakes? Do you have a vision of where you’re going? Are you determined and resilient? So when you fall do you pick yourself back up?” Obama told the audience.

He spoke as part of the Obama Foundation’s Future Series, which are conversations designed to expose high school students to different industries. Hyde Park Academy is across the street from the site where the Obama Presidential Center is being built in Jackson Park.

Obama approached his morning at Hyde Park with a mix of self-deprecation, humor and gentle motivation. One student asked if Obama had a clear vision of what he wanted to do when he was about to graduate high school.

“The answer is I did not know what I wanted to do when I was in high school,” Obama replied. While in high school, he cared about basketball but gave up professional dreams by his junior year. “Sometimes there’s so much pressure [about] what are you going to do; what are you going to be? And the truth is, you’ve got room to explore a bunch of different ideas. And you shouldn’t feel bad, if you haven’t already decided at your age and 16, 17. I think [what] you can start figuring out now is getting good habits, which is not something I did.”

Obama in Hyde Park
courtesy / The Obama Foundation

He acknowledged that being in your late teens is a weird space.

“You don’t really like people telling you what to do. And your parents are just annoying all the time because they’re still treating you like a kid and you feel like you shouldn’t be treated that way.”

Obama drew big applause for that line.

“Sometimes you can act defensive and act and pretend and have kind of an attitude with people. And at least that was true with me,” Obama said. “So I would pretend like I was super cool and I had everything covered when I didn’t. And I would look bored all the time.”

But, he said, that led him to being irresponsible.

Eventually, however, he had a realization.

“I wish that I had not acted so much like I knew everything so I could learn from more people who cared about me and gave me good advice,” Obama said.

Junior Mareon Ben said he liked the speech.

“Instead of a boring [speech,] he connected with us,” Ben said.

And of course, he said, sometimes his parents get on his nerves — but he added that he’s got to grow out of that mindset, like Obama said, and listen.

Natalie Moore is a reporter on WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. You can follow her on Twitter at @natalieymoore.