Schools of Thought

My View: When the president was my professor

By Noni Ellison-Southall, Special to CNN

Editor's note: Noni Ellison-Southall serves as senior counsel for Turner Broadcasting System Inc., which operates CNN, and heads Turner’s music division. She is on the boards of the Urban League of Greater Atlanta, MARTA, the Atlanta Speech School and the National Association for Multi-Ethnicity in Communications. She is a graduate of Howard University and University of Chicago Law School.

(CNN) - I was in a dead sleep the night of February 13 when I got an unexpected phone call. President Barack Obama would be visiting a preschool in nearby Decatur, Georgia, just days after he’d announced a priority on early childhood education. I was invited to hear him speak.

It would be special to hear the president addressing the importance of education, but especially for me. He was my law school professor. I wondered if he, now the president of the United States, was aware that he’d had a profound impact on my life years earlier at the University of Chicago Law School?

I didn’t have long to reflect. My mind was racing as reality set in. With only 12 hours till showtime, what would I wear? What should I say? Would he remember me from class? I needed to get my camera, and of course, my syllabus from “Current Issues in Racism and Law,” the class he’d taught.

It was stored safely in a green binder in an old leather briefcase in the basement with my law books. He’d apologized in the notes for messy copies, a consequence of not having a teacher’s assistant. “On the other hand,” he’d written in the syllabus, “my wife tells me that she wouldn’t have minded getting the professor’s notations on her reading material when she was in law school.” I wasn’t sure if he would sign it, but I planned to ask.

At a recreation center in Decatur, I sat in the row with Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and Sylvia Reed, his mother. It’s a modest and very intimate space. There was festive music playing, press and security everywhere and a colorful banner that read “Preschool for All” hanging on the wall. Teachers walked around, giggling and taking pictures in front of the podium with the presidential seal affixed. A sense of excitement and anticipation filled the venue. It was surreal. Was I really going to meet the president of the United States today, all those years after I’d met him the first time?

When he entered the room, stood behind the podium and began his speech, I was on my feet with pride and excitement. I was pleasantly surprised that the president seemed to have the same mannerisms and demeanor he’d had as a law school professor 18 years ago. As he spoke about the importance of education at the earliest possible age, I thought about Mrs. Mary Washington from Prairie Elementary School in Lafayette, Louisiana, a teacher who spent many hours outside of class to ensure I could read at grade level, and who encouraged my mom to get me a tutor, and Ms. Verna Ruffin, the Edgar Martin school band director who took a special interest in me and a teacher whom I’ve kept in touch with over the years.

I remember, too, the impact of Obama’s class during my tenure at the University of Chicago.

I enrolled in “Current Issues in Racism and the Law” because I wanted to further my understanding of the themes that dominated the race debate in the United States and the laws that emerged from it. In a school where discussions about race and law didn’t always feel welcome, Obama’s class provided a safe haven to analyze and discuss the complexity and diversity of opinions around racial gerrymandering, race and the criminal justice system and affirmative action. It was hard work; I remember leaving his class intellectually and emotionally drained. Regardless of what I said in his classroom, Obama never appeared to judge me, or other students. Instead, he challenged me to consider every perspective, a challenge that made me into a better law student, and makes me a better lawyer now.

I’d once imagined myself as a civil rights lawyer, but I came to realize that I could perhaps have a bigger impact by going into corporate law. I was sometimes the first and only woman or African-American in my group, and still feel it’s my responsibility to open the door and help others through it. As a direct result of what I learned in Obama’s classroom, I continue to be passionate about the issues we discussed, to make time to participate in my community and to challenge myself to consider every perspective.

For this gift, I had to say “thank you” to the president. I am proof that he did his part, long before he was president of the United States, to equip students with the critical-thinking skills and education necessary to guide our democracy and write that next great chapter in the American story.

After the president concluded his remarks, he walked over and I shared my story. He said he remembered me. He wanted to know what I was doing now. We laughed, something I don’t remember doing between the heavy topics we discussed in class.

And he did autograph my syllabus with his name and these words: “Proud of you!”

The opinions expressed are solely those of Noni Ellison-Southall.