(CNN) — Returning to her hometown of Chicago Wednesday, Michelle Obama wove a deeply personal story of her upbringing in the city that also delved into the latest subject dividing Washington lawmakers – the battle over gun control.
In emotional remarks, the first lady recalled the shooting death of Hadiya Pendleton, a 15-year-old who was murdered a week after performing in Washington during President Barack Obama’s inauguration. Saying Pendleton “was me, and I was her,” Obama reflected on the opportunities that led her to the White House instead of a similar fate.
“I had adults who pushed me, I had activities that engaged me, schools that prepared me to succeed, communities that supported me,” she said. “A neighborhood where I felt safe. And in the end, that was the difference between growing up and becoming a lawyer, a mother, the first lady of the United States, and being shot dead at the age of fifteen.”
Her remarks were made at a luncheon fundraiser for a new initiative seeking to curb youth violence in Chicago. Later in the day she met with teenagers at Harper High School, where 29 students, past and present, have been shot in the past year, according to the White House. Eight of those students died.
“One of the reasons why I like to talk to kids, especially from my city, is to make sure you all know that there isn’t much distance between me and you. There really is not,” she told the students, saying she was visiting the high school to “do a lot of listening.”
“I want to learn about what’s going on in your lives, what’s going on in your school, your communities. I want you to tell me what you think I need to know, to tell the president, to tell the rest of the country. So I’m really here to listen,” she said in brief remarks at the beginning of her visit. The remainder of her time at Harper High was closed to the news media.
The first lady’s speech and school visit came amid heated discussions in Washington over tightening gun laws nationwide, a debate prompted by the December shooting at an elementary school in Connecticut. While a deal on expanding background checks emerged Wednesday, other measures – such as bans on assault weapons and large ammunition magazines – appear destined for failure.
During her address, the first lady made quick, but powerful, mention of the debate among elected officials on gun control, saying her husband “is fighting as hard as he can, and engaging as many people as he can, to pass common sense reforms to protect our children from gun violence.”
“These reforms deserve a vote in Congress,” she continued, repeating a call President Obama also made during a speech in Connecticut on Monday. “If there is even one thing we can do, even one step we can take to save another child or another parent from the grief that has visited families like Hadiya’s and so many others here today, then don’t we have an obligation to try?”
The direct reference to an ongoing legislative debate in Washington was a departure for Mrs. Obama, who as first lady has focused on core issues of children’s nutrition and military veterans. Gun violence, however, is something both Obamas have said affects them personally, a fact apparent during Michelle Obama’s speech Wednesday.
While her husband cited his “overwhelming grief” as a parent following the Newtown shooting in December, the first lady evoked elements of her own life growing up on Chicago’s South Side.
“I started out with the same aptitude, exactly the same emotional, intellectual capabilities as so many of my peers, and the only thing that separated me from them was I had a few more advantages than some of them did,” she said.