LAST SUMMER Teri Hein—executive director of 826 Seattle, an after-school tutoring center for children—learned she could take one of her students to the White House in November to accept the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award from First Lady Michelle Obama. Hein knew instantly who to invite. Meron Kasahun, the youngest daughter of an Ethiopian emigre, was an easily distracted eighth grader at Whitman Middle School four years ago when she started coming to 826 for help with her math and science homework. Now she has a 3.5 GPA and is president of the black student union at Ballard High School and writes for the school newspaper and mentors other kids at 826 and… Just take it from Hein: “She’s a role model.”

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There’s this one tutor at 826, Doug. He was the one who put me in line. He told me, “No one else is going to do your work for you.” Part of the reason that worked was because my mom is uneducated and ever since I was little I told myself I didn’t want to live her life. I love my mom, but she works way too hard for way too little. When I was in elementary school she would have to work at night, and she’d come home at, like, 4 in the morning. I was seven and my sister was 12, and she had to babysit me. It was scary in a way because we didn’t have a dad to take care of us. I guess my brother should have been the guy to do that. But he’s been in prison, so that didn’t work out.

I hugged Michelle Obama. We had an orientation the night before the award presentation, and they told us, “Do not reach in for a hug, because security will attack you.” They said to reach for a handshake, because that’s the safe zone. So I was standing there on the stage, and I had my right hand ready if she wanted it. But then she put her arms out, so I was like, Oh, hey. Hug time.

To have lived through the experience of Barack Obama being elected, that means something to me. So many people, like Sojourner Truth and MLK, wanted to see this kind of change in the country and weren’t able to, but I was. So what can I do with that? How can I take what people before me have worked so hard to do and apply it to the world?

My mom is extremely happy about where I am. That’s another incentive behind everything I do. The whole reason she came to this country in the first place was to give my sister and me and my brother a chance to have a decent education and a decent lifestyle. For me to make sure that that happens and to make sure that I’m staying out of trouble, that’s the reason she came here. Why would I put myself in a situation where I’m doing something wrong when she’s doing everything possible so that I can do something right?

A lot of people say I’m weird. Probably because I am. I know how to unicycle. I knit myself hats all the time. What else? I don’t like red bell peppers.

Before 826, my world was my school and my bedroom. I’ve been here four years now, and I don’t feel like I’m even the same person. I’m a lot more confident with who I am and what I do and what I say. This is who I am. I’m not embarrassed to say that my mom doesn’t make $100,000 a year. I was born into this life, you know? There’s no reason you should be afraid of or embarrassed by anything about yourself. You didn’t choose that for yourself. That’s who you are.

In my neighborhood, most of the kids are white, and their parents make a lot of money, and that’s just the way it is. But here, because we’re in the middle of not the richest part of the city, we have all of these different kinds of kids coming to learn. And diversity is such an important part of learning, because it’s how you function as an adult. In school, you’re learning the same way as everyone else in your class, but there are so many different ways to learn. And all of that happens under this roof.

I’m not even saying this just to say it: When I’m with a student and I’m trying to teach them something and they’re not learning it, and then finally they’re like, “Oh, I get it now!”—that makes me so happy. Ten years from now, that person is going to know how to multiply, and I caused that. I put that in their mind. It’s a good feeling.

What bums me out? I don’t know. Missing the bus.

There are so many things that make me think, When I’m old enough, I want to change that. I want to be a person who changes the way people think. I want to fix something that’s wrong with the world.