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Charles Ogletree: Reflections on being a mentor to President Barack Obama

Charles Ogletree
Charles Ogletree

When Barack Obama took the oath of office to become the next President of the United States on Jan. 20, 2009, millions of people around the nation and around the world were overwhelmed with joy and pride.

As I sat on the mall in Washington, D.C., and saw Michelle Obama holding the same Bible that President Abraham Lincoln used during his swearing-in ceremony and listen to Barack Obama accept this new challenge in his life, I view it as a fitting tribute to one of my great students and a remarkable public servant.

I suspect that tears of joy flowed among the millions gathered on the mall in Washington and among those witnessing this event around the world. I have deceived myself by imagining that my response would be stoic and reflective.

My better judgment, however, suggests that I too will find it impossible to ignore the enormous emotional reaction to this unparallel moment in American political history. I find it hard to believe that my former students -- Barack and Michelle Obama -- are now the President and the First Lady. I met Michelle in 1985 and Barack in 1988, and this journey has had many sweet victories and a few bitter defeats, but nothing will match the joy of being a kid born and raised in Merced finding himself 56 years later serving as a senior adviser and mentor to the President of the United States of America.

Both Michelle and Barack Obama were exceptionally gifted students at Harvard Law School. I met Michelle in 1985 when I began teaching on a full-time basis at Harvard Law School, and she was a first-year law student. Based upon her intelligence, drive, warm personality and deep conviction to spend her legal career in pursuit of public service, I imagined then that she would become the first African-American woman to serve in the United States Senate. Michelle was a serious student in the classroom and also volunteered hundreds of hours as a student attorney in Massachusetts legal hearings, representing poor clients in the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau.

I admired her willingness to commit her time and intelligence to serving the needy and imagined that she would continue to do so when she became a graduate of Harvard Law School. Michelle and her brother Craig lived in a warm and nurturing home on the South Side of Chicago with parents who supported their efforts to pursue educational opportunities and who convinced them that were no limits to their success. Michelle Obama was always mindful that her father, who never went to college, sacrificed everything he could to make sure that his children received all of the educational opportunities that would ensure them successful lives as professionals.Barack Obama's journey to Washington, D.C., from Hawaii was eerily similar. The challenges he had to overcome as a young man before he arrived at Harvard Law School in the fall of 1988 seemed insurmountable. Barack's father from Kenya was largely absent from his life. His mother from Kansas became pregnant as a teenager and raised him as a single-parent. Despite a profile that seemed destined for failure, Barack’s loving family encouraged him to have a deep belief in God, work hard in school and the successes would eventually materialize.

His mother was right. Barack arrived at Harvard Law School will a zeal for learning and a level of intellectual curiosity that required his Harvard Law School professors to be well-versed in the nuances of the law and to realize the genius that stood before them.

I marveled at Barack Obama's ability to multi-task even as a young man. He was not only asking probing questions in the classroom, but also eager to challenge bigger, stronger and quicker basketball players in the gymnasium in very competitive games of basketball. It was this ability to navigate the challenges of the classroom and the chaos of the basketball court that caused him to stand alone as a mature, bright, friendly and optimistic young law student.

For the past two years, I have traveled around the country and appeared at churches, in the media, law schools, colleges and law firms — trying to convince American voters that Barack Obama was truly an exceptional candidate for the Presidency.

I remember how so many of my closest friends were skeptical of Barack Obama's candidacy in 2007 and most of 2008. As I reflect upon him becoming the President of the United States on Jan. 20, 2009, I cannot help but feel vindicated by hearing the many skeptics now suggesting that they embraced Barack Obama's eventual success all along.

This past October, my three grand-daughters, ages 7, 4, and 10 months, went with their parents during the early voting in Florida and participated in casting their votes for Barack Obama. Their excitement convinced me that even young children admire Barack Obama's success and have every confidence that someday they too can become President of the United States.

For those young people in Merced, I hope that Jan. 20, 2009, is a transformative day and served to convince them that there is no limit to what they can do. All their dreams can come true.

Charles Ogletree was born in Merced in 1952, son of Charles Sr. and Willie Mae Ogletree. His family, including his grandparents, Big Daddy and Big Mama Ogletree, were migrant workers, often picking figs for a living. He's now a professor of law at Harvard University.