Fifty students and adult chaperones from the Telling Room in Portland will travel to Boston on Saturday as guests of Michelle Obama to hear the former first lady speak on her national book tour. There’s an outside chance the Telling Room kids might get to meet her.

Michelle Obama greets the Telling Room’s Ibrahim Shkara at the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Awards at the White House in 2015, when the center’s after-school program received an award.

“Honestly, I wouldn’t know what to say,” said 16-year-old Gracia Bareti of Westbrook. “I’m a hugger. I’d ask if it was OK to hug her first.”

Salar Salim, 17, also of Westbrook, said meeting Obama would be great, “but just being in her presence means a lot, because she’s a role model to a lot of people, including myself.”

Obama will speak at 8 p.m. Saturday at TD Garden. Her book, “Becoming,” came out Nov. 13 and is a top-seller nationally. It’s No. 1 on Amazon and Barnes & Noble and is expected to debut atop The New York Times’ best-selling book list when that comes out on Wednesday.

There’s a history between Obama and the Telling Room, a nationally recognized writing center that helps teenagers develop writing skills so they can tell their own stories in their own voices. As first lady in 2015, Obama presented the Telling Room with a national award recognizing its Young Writers & Leaders after-school literary program, and students from the Telling Room went to the White House to receive the award.

Obama also is friends with Portland writer Sara Corbett, co-founder of the Telling Room. Corbett collaborated with Obama on “Becoming,” and Obama acknowledges Corbett for being part of “an incredibly gifted team” that helped her complete the book. In her book, Obama writes of Corbett: “When I first met Sara Corbett a little over a year ago, all I knew about her was that she was highly respected by my editor and knew very little about politics. Today I would trust her with my life not just because she has an amazing and curious mind but because she is a fundamentally kind and generous human being. I hope that this is just the beginning of a lasting friendship.”

In an email, Corbett declined to speak about her involvement in “Becoming,” writing, “I think I’ll let Mrs. O’s acknowledgment speak for itself. … Thanks so much for asking and apologies for needing to be a little shy on this front.”

Celine Kuhn, the Telling Room’s executive director, said there was intense interest among students and staff about the trip to Boston. It was unclear Tuesday if any of the students would get to meet Obama on Saturday. The staff used a lottery to determine which students would make the trip. About 125 kids submitted their names, and 40 were chosen. The Telling Room serves about 4,000 students throughout the year.

Bareti said Obama was an inspirational figure among young people because she understands issues important to youth – inclusion, diversity, education and the necessity of overcoming obstacles to achieve goals. “She’s from the South Side of Chicago and I’m from Westbrook, Maine – two totally different environments,” Bareti said. “But I can relate. I look up to her.”

Obama is inspirational to people of all ages, men and women, regardless of politics, Kuhn said, and the stories in her book underscore the ideals embodied in the Telling Room’s mission of building confidence and skills through creative expression. The Telling Room’s ranks are filled with published and aspiring authors who can learn from Obama’s experiences and example, she said.

In a letter to Telling Room students with her invitation, Obama wrote, “While I was writing ‘Becoming,’ I spent a lot of time thinking about my story and the stories of others – how gloriously diverse they are, how there is so much to learn from each one, and just how powerful it is to listen when someone finds their voice and decides to share their story.”

Patty Howells, a Telling Room board member, was at the writing center this month when Obama’s invitation arrived. The staff gathered as many students as they could on short notice and asked Bareti to read the letter. The students shrieked with surprise when they learned they were going to Boston, Howells said. “There were tears of joy.”

Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: pphbkeyes

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.


  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.