Michelle Obama and student Kayla Pearson at Harper High School last month. The first lady has kept the plight of Chicago students in the spotlight. (Nancy Stone, Chicago Tribune / April 10, 2013)

As a young girl growing up in the South, I looked forward to the fourth Sunday of August.

We called it "Homecoming" at my church in Hogansville, Ga. That was when folks who had moved away from our small, rural town seeking better opportunities in Atlanta — and sometimes as far away as Chicago or New York — returned home to attend services.

As they made their way down the aisle, dressed to the nines in tailored suits, shiny high heels and sprawling hats, girls like me stared in awe.

Afterward, while sitting around the dinner table, they captivated us with stories from the big city.

One had broken through racial barriers to become one of the first black secretaries at Norfolk Southern railroad. Another worked in the registrar's office at historically black Morris Brown College. Another had founded a cosmetics company named after her mother, who proudly sat next to her in the pew.

There was an air about the visitors that exuded success. Maybe it was the way they tilted their head slightly upward as they walked toward their seats. Or how they seemed to acknowledge everyone in the congregation, pausing along the way to extend their hand.

Their actions easily could have been misinterpreted as highfalutin, as we would have called it then. But to young people like me who had never so much as traveled beyond the state line, it made them seem more familiar and opened our minds to their unspoken message:

"I am you."

First lady Michelle Obama's recent visits to Chicago reminded me of that Southern ritual from long ago.

Obviously proud of her status as a "South Side girl," she has made a point of gathering youths together and telling them that they are no different than she was growing up in Chicago's South Shore neighborhood.

Like the church visitors, she enters the room with poise and grace. Young girls in the audience stretch their necks to get a glimpse of her. They are awed by her presence.

She tells them about her working-class parents and the family's crowded apartment, so small that she had to share a room with her brother and get up at 4:30 in the morning just to study in quiet. Like them, she says, she had to deal with "haters" — people who didn't believe she could make it at an Ivy League school because she did not come from privilege.

"I grew up in the same neighborhoods, went to the same schools, faced the same struggles, shared the same hopes and dreams that all of you share. I am you," she told a crowd of young people during a February rally at McCormick Place kicking off a new phase of her Let's Move initiative.

"You can all make yourselves into somebody that you're proud of. You have it in you," she said. "You can be anything you want — whether it's a doctor, a teacher, a scientist, or, yes, president of the United States."

That's a tough sell to kids who have to spend day and night dodging bullets.

Things are different now, the young people tell her. It's a lot worse than it was "back in the day" when she was growing up on the South Side, they say.

The first lady's stories pale in comparison to the children's tales of living in the grips of violence.

Her message is unfamiliar. In Chicago, where many young people are traumatized by the extraordinary amount of violence in their lives, they can't look at her and see themselves.

Some people say that in Chicago, the time for symbolic gestures has passed.

Homecoming doesn't send the same message of upward mobility as it did for my generation. But the first lady has something the Southern church visitors did not. She has a national platform.

When the first lady attended Hadiya Pendleton's funeral in February, it cemented the slain 15-year-old's place as a symbol of all the innocent victims. When she sat down with students from Harper High School in West Englewood last month and cried as they told their stories, the nation again took notice.

A White House official said the first lady has continued to be in contact with Harper High School and Hadiya's family. And recently, she used a Sunday morning interview on CBS to remind the country of the plight of Chicago's children. "Every day they wake up and wonder whether they're going to make it out of school alive," she said. "What is our obligation to these kids? We do have one."

It is commendable that the first lady continues to lift the violence epidemic into the public consciousness. But a growing number of Chicagoans want to see something more substantive from the South Side girl who has the power of the White House behind her.

Martha Biondi, a professor of African-American studies at Northwestern University, says people are looking for a shift in public policy, more investment in the central city and summer jobs programs for youths.

"Symbolism meaning to instill hope in young people is really nice, but at the end of the day, these young people have endured massive disinvestment in their community. It's very challenging conditions they are compelled to live in," Biondi said.

"Government has to do more to make this idea of a brighter future a reality," she said. "Opportunity can't be just a word or concept; it has to be real."

It's one thing when the first lady of the United States comes home to the South Side and tells young people, "I am you."

But it's quite another when those young people can look her in the eye and say with confidence, "Yes, and I can be you."

dglanton@tribune.com