Here are 11 things you may not know about our 44th president’s adolescence in Hawaii, from David Maraniss’s new biography “Barack Obama: The Story” (Simon & Schuster).
1. He was not an A student.
“… but knew what he wanted to talk about and was very good at putting it on paper,” said classmate Joe Hanson.
2. He had hoop dreams.
He walked with the athletic stride that he had seen in his NBA heroes on TV: Tiny Archibald, the Iceman, Earl the Pearl and Dr. J. He’d play basketball for a half-hour before homeroom at 8 a.m., and he made the Punahou School varsity squad, which won the state championship his senior year. To his older and law-school-oriented friend Tony Peterson, the ninth-grade Barack Obama wrote in Peterson’s senior yearbook: “Some day when I am an all-pro basketballer, and I want to sue my team for more money, I’ll call on you.”
3. He thought his grandmother could have been in “Mad Men.”
The world saw Madelyn Dunham as practical, clear-eyed and indispensable. But young Barack also saw his teenage caretaker as tightly strung, carrying the financial weight of the family and needing alcohol and cigarettes to unwind. In a White House interview, President Obama said his grandmother reflected the times, comparing her to the “Mad Men” character Peggy: “That’s my grandmother, you know, starting out with the low-level secretary job and working her way up.”
4. His “Gramps” was cool.
High school friends who made it over to Barack Obama’s 10th-floor apartment to hang out or watch NBA games on TV loved Stanley Dunham. “He would listen to you and be more of a friend than an authority,” classmate Jon Hanson said.
5. He had troubles with mom.
Although he generally kept a cool exterior, at times Barack Obama confided in friends that he missed his mother, Ann Dunham, who was doing graduate work in Indonesia. “What was upsetting him — that his mother took off again,” recalled upperclassman Keith Kakugawa. “Seems like she never has time for him — that kind of thing.” Nonetheless, his mom pushed him to do better, put the guilt on, and Obama responded.
6. He didn’t hang with the popular kids
As a ninth-grader, Barack Obama would spend 11 a.m. recesses with a snack and two friends of color from Punahou, Rik Smith and Tony Peterson. Their “Ethnic Corner” was across the way from Senior Bench, where the jocks and cheerleaders sat. They talked about social issues, “stuff like whether we would ever see a black president in our lifetime. None of us talked about whether we might be that person,” recalled Smith.
7. He chilled.
With friends, Barack Obama would swim in a stream, bravely bodysurf the often-rough Sandy Beach and drink Beck’s, Heineken or St. Pauli Girl beer at a lush, isolated mountainside spot while a stereo played Aerosmith, Blue Oyster Cult or Stevie Wonder. The group also would remove the empty beer bottles.
8. He did more than “a little weed.”
Barack Obama didn’t deny his marijuana use in his memoir, “Dreams From My Father.” But he understated his enthusiasm for the drug. Classmates said he really inhaled, inventing a term called TA — total absorption. “Wasting good bud smoke was not tolerated,” recalled Tom Topolinski. Friends recalled that when a joint was making the rounds, Obama often elbowed in before his turn, shouted “Intercepted!” and took another hit. Nobody minded.
9. He survived a scary rollover.
“One night they held a drag race on Mount Tantalus,” Maraniss recounted. Barack Obama rode shotgun in a friend’s Toyota against a Volkswagen van. The Toyota flipped, resting on its hood. The driver had a bloody nose; he and Obama crawled out the back window. When the other vehicle circled back, Obama was laughing, denigrating the driving skills of his friend in language not fit for a family website.
10. Looking back, he recalled feeling utterly alone.
Twenty years later, Barack Obama wrote for the Punahou alumni magazine that he questioned his identity as one of the few African Americans at the school: “As a kid from a broken home and family of modest means, I nursed more resentments than my circumstances justified, and didn’t always channel those resentments in particularly constructive ways.”
11. But he wasn’t going to wallow.
At Punahou School, Barack Obama checked out books by the giants of African American literature — James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright and WEB Du Bois — spending days reading each in his room at home. With each writer, he saw a similarity, moving abroad later in life or “deeper into the bowels of Harlem, all of them exhausted, bitter men,” as Obama put it in his memoir. That was not the route he would choose.