Hipai Pamba, co-teacher and graduate of the Young Writers & Leaders Program at the Telling Room, participates in a Zoom call with former President Barack Obama. “I was enlightened by what he had to say,” Pamba says. Photo courtesy of the Telling Room

Former President Barack Obama spent an hour on a Zoom chat with 26 students from the Telling Room in Portland in late January, talking with them about writing, his recently published memoir, “A Promised Land,” and the importance of storytelling, community and conquering self-doubts.

The Telling Room announced the Zoom visit with Obama on Thursday, several weeks after it occurred. Because of an agreement with Obama’s publisher, the Telling Room was bound to secrecy about the virtual visit, said executive director Celine Kuhn. It wasn’t an easy task given the excitement of the students.

“He is my favorite leader in the world,” said Noor Abduljaleel, a 17-year-old senior from Westbrook. “It was a dream for me to talk to him.”

Noor Sager, a 15-year-old sophomore from Gorham who was born in Iraq and has grown up in the United States, told the former president she is conflicted about her identity and asked if he had similar self-doubts or advice. “He said I should lean into the fact that I am from so many different places and draw on that to inform my writing and my life. It is only going to help me,” Sager said, calling the one-on-one exchange with Obama life-changing and surreal. “Guilt about my identity is something that will happen to me all of my life. Those are words I will try to stick by. They will stick in my mind,” Sager said.

Obama addressed students in the Telling Room’s Young Writers & Leaders program, an after-school creative writing and leadership program for international and multicultural students. They joined virtually, chatting casually with Obama from their locations in Maine as he spoke from his office in Washington, D.C. Now This News, an online news outlet that covers progressive issues, filmed the virtual talk and released the video Thursday afternoon, as did Obama on his social media outlets.

Obama and his family have a growing connection and history with the Young Writers & Leaders program and the Telling Room. In 2015, first lady Michelle Obama recognized Young Writers and Leaders as one of the top 12 young arts and humanities programs in the country, and invited members of the group to the White House to receive an award and recognition. In 2018, 50 students from the Telling Room were guests of Michelle Obama when she spoke about her memoir, “Becoming,” in Boston.

Portland resident, writer and Telling Room co-founder Sara Corbett is friends with Michelle Obama and helped with her memoir, as well as that of the former president. In the acknowledgements for “A Promised Land,” he writes that Corbett “added editorial expertise and creative vision to this project, coordinating our team, editing multiple drafts, and making critically helpful suggestions throughout. She’s also been full of wisdom, encouragement, and good cheer, and made this a far better book than it otherwise would be.”

Telling Room board member Ekhlas Ahmed said Obama’s talk with the students made her cry. “Seeing how President Obama was talking to students at the Telling Room – that sentence alone, he was talking to our students at the Telling Room – it goes right along with our mission and how we like to share youth voices with our entire world,” she said. Ahmed described the episode as “almost like a scene from a book. It didn’t seem like reality, but it was and is, and we are so lucky and fortunate for him to spend the time with us at the Telling Room. We are a small state, but we do get the attention of loud and big leaders, and that is just an amazing thing.”

Twenty-six students participated in the call, which occurred late in the day on Jan. 26. Students learned about it a few days in advance and each prepared a question, although only a handful got to ask their questions because of time constraints. Crown Publishing also sent each student a copy of “A Promised Land.”

Khalil Kilani, 18, a Waynflete senior, introduced the Telling Room program to Obama. As he spoke with the former president, Kilani said he grew more confident in himself and his future. “You start to get this feeling of hope, that maybe you could be in his position also,” Kilani said. “That is what he was there to spread, that the future is in our hands and we are the next leaders.”

Youmna Mohamed, a 17-year-old senior from Portland High School, asked Obama about his public self versus his private self. “It was unbelievable. It was unreal,” she said of the opportunity to address the former president directly. “I never thought it would happen.”

Alia Usanase, 19, a junior from Deering High, said she came away from the Zoom call with the idea that anything is possible and nobody is perfect. She confessed to Obama that she struggled with her own writing and sometimes feels self-doubt even when other people praise her work. He told her he wasn’t always thrilled with his own writing. “His response left me with a kind of relief. I was able to believe I can do this, that I can write better and that I can get better at it,” Usanase said. “It really is possible to get to where I want to be.”

Simona Ickia Ngaullo, 17 and a senior at South Portland High, took home the same message. “What matters is the fact that we choose to keep doing it,” she said. “That advice stuck with me.”

Sonya Tomlinson, a co-teacher and leader of the Young Writers & Leaders program, said the timing of Obama’s talk added to a feeling of euphoria and inspiration at the Telling Room. Just a few days before Obama spoke to the students, they listened and watched as young poet Amanda Gorman delivered her poem, “The Hill We Climb,” at Joe Biden’s presidential inauguration. Gorman wrote the introduction for the Telling Room’s 2020 book of poetry, “A New Land,” by youth poets from Maine.

Sonya Tomlinson, co-teacher and program lead of the Young Writers & Leaders Program at the Telling Room in Portland, watches a Zoom call with Telling Room students and former President Barack Obama in late January. Courtesy of the Telling Room

“To have President Obama show up for this program just six days after such a monumental inauguration where Amanda Gorman seemed to really floor the country – to be a teacher at the Telling Room, where everybody on staff is so tuned in to how important youth voices are – it felt like the whole country got hip to it all at once, and it felt exciting to drive the momentum of what we always do as an organization. To see him on screen and knowing the next Amanda Gorman already lives within this group of students was really reassuring to me to have that validation.”

When Obama learned about the June publication of the 2021 poetry chapbook by Telling Room students, he asked for a copy when it is published – and hinted the Zoom call might not be their last interaction. “We might be hanging out again,” he told the students.

To close the call, the students asked the former president to participate in a Telling Room tradition that involves creating a community story by going around the room and having each participant offer a word that describes their time together. The students went first, using words like remarkable, dazzling, miraculous, grateful and ineffable.

Obama said he was hopeful.


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