In a pep talk that kept clear of politics, President Barack Obama on Sept. 8 challenged the nation’s students to take pride in their education — and stick with it even if they don’t like every class or must overcome tough circumstances at home. And in a discussion with students before giving his speech, the president also cautioned students to be careful about what they post on social-networking sites such as Facebook.
"Every single one of you has something that you’re good at. Every single one of you has something to offer," Obama told students at Wakefield High School in suburban Arlington, Va., and children watching his speech on television and via the internet in schools across the country. "And you have a responsibility to yourself to discover what that is."
Presidents often visit schools, and Obama was not the first one to offer a back-to-school address aimed at millions of students in every grade.
Yet this one was doused with controversy from the beginning, as several conservative organizations and many concerned parents feared that Obama was trying to sell his political agenda. (See "Obama’s speech to students sparks controversy.") That concern was caused, in part, by an accompanying administration lesson plan that encouraged students to write a letter explaining how they would "help the president," one of many suggested activities that dovetailed with the speech. The White House later revised the lesson plan.
School districts in some areas decided not to offer their students access to his midday speech.
Upon arrival at the school, Obama’s motorcade was greeted by a small band of protesters. One carried a sign exclaiming: "Mr. President, stay away from our kids."
Obama didn’t mention the uproar in his speech.
He preceded his broad-scale talk by meeting with about 40 Wakefield students in a school library, where at one point he advised them to "be careful what you post on Facebook. Whatever you do, it will be pulled up again later somewhere in your life."
"When I was your age," Obama said, "I was a little bit of a goof-off. My main goal was to get on the varsity basketball team and have fun."
One young person asked why the country doesn’t have universal health insurance. "I think we need it. I think we can do it," Obama replied. The president said the country can afford to insure all Americans and that doing so will save money in the long run.
He also told the group that not having a father at home "forced me to grow up faster."
Asked to name one person–dead or alive–he would choose to dine with, Obama said inspirational leader Mohandas K. Gandhi.
"He’s somebody I find a lot of inspiration in. He inspired Dr. [Martin Luther] King with his message of nonviolence," Obama said. "He ended up doing so much and changed the world just by the power of his ethics."
The White House released the text of his speech a day early so school officials and parents could evaluate it before it was delivered. Obama gave it virtually unchanged, and it was carried live on ESPN and the White House web site.
"There is no excuse for not trying," he said. "The truth is, being successful is hard. You won’t love every subject that you study. You won’t click with every teacher that you have."
The school he chose as the setting for his talk–Wakefield–is the most economically and racially diverse school in Arlington County, according to the Department of Education. Nearly 40 percent of graduating seniors pass an Advanced Placement test. That’s more than twice the national average.
"Maybe you could be an innovator or an inventor–maybe even good enough to come up with the next iPhone or the new medicine or vaccine–but you might not know it until you do your project for your science class," Obama said in his speech to students. "Maybe you could be a mayor or a senator or a Supreme Court justice–but you might not know that until you join student government or the debate team.
"And no matter what you want to do with your life, I guarantee that you’ll need an education to do it. You want to be a doctor, or a teacher, or a police officer? You want to be a nurse or an architect, a lawyer or a member of our military? You’re going to need a good education for every single one of those careers. You cannot drop out of school and just drop into a good job. You’ve got to train for it and work for it and learn for it.
"And this isn’t just important for your own life and your own future. What you make of your education will decide nothing less than the future of this country. The future of America depends on you. What you’re learning in school today will determine whether we as a nation can meet our greatest challenges in the future.
"You’ll need the knowledge and problem-solving skills you learn in science and math to cure diseases like cancer and AIDS, and to develop new energy technologies and protect our environment. You’ll need the insights and critical-thinking skills you gain in history and social studies to fight poverty and homelessness, crime and discrimination, and make our nation more fair and more free. You’ll need the creativity and ingenuity you develop in all your classes to build new companies that will create new jobs and boost our economy.
"We need every single one of you to develop your talents and your skills and your intellect so you can help us old folks solve our most difficult problems. If you don’t do that–if you quit on school–you’re not just quitting on yourself, you’re quitting on your country."