Noah McQueen is part of “My Brother’s Keeper,” a White House program aimed at young men of color.
His teen years have been rough, and include several arrests and a short period of incarceration. But last week, he was at the White House. The 18-year-old sat down for a StoryCorps interview with President Obama, who wanted to know more about Noah’s life.
“Growing up, I didn’t have a stable household, so I believe I attended eight or nine middle schools throughout the course of two or three years,” McQueen says.
McQueen says his dad lives down the street from him, but he doesn’t really have a relationship with him.
“Well, that’s one of the things we have in common,” Obama says. “As I get older, I start reflecting on how that affected me. How do you think that affected you?”
“You kind of learn right and wrong on your own terms,” McQueen says. “I got into fights. And fighting, or getting put out of school is, you know, normal. So that’s how really the trouble started for me being in the juvenile system. I was on the run.”
“You were on the run, how so?” Obama asks.
“From the law,” McQueen laughs.
“Yeah, what had you done?” Obama says.
“I believe it was, what’s it called?” McQueen says.
“What do you mean you believe?” Obama says. “It was something. You know what it was.”
“It was violation of house arrest,” McQueen admits.
“So you had gotten in repeated trouble,” Obama says. “And what happened?”
“I went to a Christian retreat,” McQueen says.
“Did you say to yourself, ‘Man, I need to find something different and go to a Christian retreat?’ ” Obama says.
“Oh no sir, I didn’t want to go at all,” McQueen says. “My mom forced me.”
“OK, so mama intervened. ‘Lord, please help my knucklehead son, Noah, straighten out,’ ” Obama says. “Are you skeptical when you get there?”
McQueen says his problems were different from the other kids.
“Like, their problems were, a guy complaining about his mom not buying him the chips he want, or different things like that,” he says. “And then, I’m talking about that my friend was killed the week before, so…”
“What happened that softened you up a little bit?” Obama says.
“It wasn’t until I decided to do better for myself, that I had to be held accountable for my actions, so I’m not the same person,” McQueen says. “I’m not the same creature. Everything about me, and my being is different.”
“Obviously you’ve straightened yourself out. You’re sitting here in the White House, hanging out with the president,” Obama says. “So when people are seeing you in this new light, did you feel pressure to revert back to the way you had acted before?”
“Definitely, there’s always pressure, even now,” McQueen says. “I’m sure you can relate. I feel like as a black man, just me coming on the train over here, I know how we’re perceived. I know how people look at us. Every time we step into the room, we have to be on top of your game.
“People will say, ‘You are the success story,’ ” McQueen adds. “It’s hard to always make the right decision, and it’s hard to always be the leader.”
“Well, look, listen. At the age of 18, I didn’t know what I was going to be doing with my life,” Obama says. “And you shouldn’t feel like you can’t make mistakes at this point. You’re 18 years old, I promise you you’re gonna make some more as you go along.
“But one of the things you’ve discovered is that you have this strength inside yourself,” he adds. “And if you stay true to that voice that clearly knows what’s right and what’s wrong, sometimes you’re going to mess up, but you can steer back and keep going.”
Obama then asks McQueen to look ahead 10 years from now, and think about what he would like to be doing.
“I just decided recently I want to do education because I do want to work with kids,” McQueen says. “You know, to see the beginnings, and to see where I was, to see the exact same kid doing the exact same thing. And it’s like, we owe it to everyone and ourselves to come back and change that. And that’s like our civic duty, I believe.”
“Yeah, and Noah, I just want to say how proud I am of you, man,” Obama says. “It’s not an easy thing to do what you’ve done. And I think you give others a lot of confidence and a sense of what’s possible for them. And that makes me real proud. I know you’re going to do great things.”
NPR’s policy is to not make internal edits to interviews with sitting presidents. But as with all StoryCorps conversations, and just as when President George W. Bush recorded in 2008, this one has been edited for length.
Audio produced for Morning Edition by Michael Garofalo and John White.
StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.