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Kindergarten with a girl named Michelle

Michelle Obamkindergarten

Michelle Obama in kindergarten

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Updated: December 26, 2012 6:19AM

We gathered on the playground dressed in our picture-taking clothes. A group of girls jumped rope, double dutch, and sang. I threw a rubber ball against the school’s brick wall, catching it on the return, and found I was getting unwanted attention from another bunch of girls who liked my bow tie.

They chased me across the asphalt to a chain-linked fence, breathing hard and laughing.

The bell rang and we went indoors to line up for our class picture. I had a hole in the knee of my pants and my ball in my shirt pocket.

We were kindergarteners on the South Side of Chicago in 1969, living in a neighborhood in transition. It was becoming the “baddest part of town,” but not yet. I lived with my mom, who went to work every day. My older brother was a big boy at South Shore high school. The Beatles were ending while Led Zeppelin and Monty Python were just beginning, but I wouldn’t appreciate them for years.

The Chicago Seven were going on trial. Sirhan Sirhan was a funny name that I heard on TV a lot. And Sesame Street came on the air that year. I really liked that show, but I didn’t understand much more of what I saw and heard on TV, nor could I grasp how it would all affect me.

Here’s what I knew about politics in 1969: We had 23 girls and 6 boys in our kindergarten class at Bryn Mawr Elementary School, so the boys were hopelessly outnumbered when it came to voting on a story time book.

I respected girls, sensing their not-so-subtle power and the way they stuck together. Racially, there were five little white faces and 23 shades of brown faces and one Middle Eastern face, a subtle shade darker than that of the Jewish kid to his right in our class photo. I don’t think Feisal thought a moment about Adam Bernstein’s heritage or the conflict between their relatives back home in Iran and Israel. More likely they sat together watching the astronauts landing on the moon.

I remember Feisal because his name was funny. His dad was an Iranian engineer and knew how to get oil out of the ground under the ocean.

I also remember Adam and Michelle. I went to Adam’s house once for what we now call a play date. We played with a big pile of Legos. He showed me a record player and a record he was allowed to play. It was Beethoven. We listened to it a lot while we played, and his mom made us snacks.

As for Michelle, she was cute and I liked her smile. She was smart, too. She was one of the girls who chased me on the playground before we sat for our class picture.

I look now at all the bright faces in this picture and I wonder about the trajectory of their lives. I am the boy in the back row with the bow tie and the impossibly big head, my rubber ball in my pocket, but I have not kept in touch with the others. My mom, a Korean War refugee, had left her country with her African-American-Korean baby, my older brother, in her arms. She went to work after my father died, while I ran around the playground with a rubber ball and a house key. She later married a German-Polish guy and we moved out of the hard old neighborhood, refugees ourselves.

Most of my growing up was done way across town, in a suburb full of Jewish kids, new cars and fresh houses. I learned to wear a yarmulke at bar mitzvahs, and I learned how to feel indignant at the suffering of others. Northwestern University trained me to be an engineer and a physician. My older brother became a Chicago cop. I moved out west to Oregon to raise my family and escaped the tough city. We are doing OK, and I vote.

I didn’t keep up with anybody from kindergarten, but I can tell you that one of my best friends grew up to be a fireman. He was murdered while depositing his paycheck at an ATM. Our old part of town had become a rough place to live, a world that I had put out of mind a long time before.

I wonder now about the kids in the photo. What lives have they led? They must have been pretty tough to survive, yet alone thrive. But I do know that one of the other kids did OK for herself. That would be Michelle, the smart girl with the pretty smile, sitting second from the right in the third row back. She is making a difference today in Washington, where she lives in a white house with her husband, who has a funny name.

Dr. Theodore Ford is a physician practicing anesthesia and pain management in Bend, Oregon. He is married with two sons in college, rides his bike, and tends his goats near the Cascade Mountains.

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