September 7th, 2009
12:28 PM ET
12 years ago

Obama speech to school children: 'You make your own future'

The White House has released the full text of President Obama's speech to school children Tuesday:

Prepared Remarks of President Barack Obama
Back to School Event

Arlington, Virginia
September 8, 2009

The President: Hello everyone – how’s everybody doing today? I’m here with students at Wakefield High School in Arlington, Virginia. And we’ve got students tuning in from all across America, kindergarten through twelfth grade. I’m glad you all could join us today.

I know that for many of you, today is the first day of school. And for those of you in kindergarten, or starting middle or high school, it’s your first day in a new school, so it’s understandable if you’re a little nervous. I imagine there are some seniors out there who are feeling pretty good right now, with just one more year to go. And no matter what grade you’re in, some of you are probably wishing it were still summer, and you could’ve stayed in bed just a little longer this morning.

I know that feeling. When I was young, my family lived in Indonesia for a few years, and my mother didn’t have the money to send me where all the American kids went to school. So she decided to teach me extra lessons herself, Monday through Friday – at 4:30 in the morning.
Now I wasn’t too happy about getting up that early. A lot of times, I’d fall asleep right there at the kitchen table. But whenever I’d complain, my mother would just give me one of those looks and say, "This is no picnic for me either, buster."

So I know some of you are still adjusting to being back at school. But I’m here today because I have something important to discuss with you. I’m here because I want to talk with you about your education and what’s expected of all of you in this new school year.

Now I’ve given a lot of speeches about education. And I’ve talked a lot about responsibility.
I’ve talked about your teachers’ responsibility for inspiring you, and pushing you to learn.
I’ve talked about your parents’ responsibility for making sure you stay on track, and get your homework done, and don’t spend every waking hour in front of the TV or with that Xbox.
I’ve talked a lot about your government’s responsibility for setting high standards, supporting teachers and principals, and turning around schools that aren’t working where students aren’t getting the opportunities they deserve.

But at the end of the day, we can have the most dedicated teachers, the most supportive parents, and the best schools in the world – and none of it will matter unless all of you fulfill your responsibilities. Unless you show up to those schools; pay attention to those teachers; listen to your parents, grandparents and other adults; and put in the hard work it takes to succeed.

And that’s what I want to focus on today: the responsibility each of you has for your education. I want to start with the responsibility you have to yourself.

Every single one of you has something you’re good at. Every single one of you has something to offer. And you have a responsibility to yourself to discover what that is. That’s the opportunity an education can provide.

Maybe you could be a good writer – maybe even good enough to write a book or articles in a newspaper – but you might not know it until you write a paper for your English class. Maybe you could be an innovator or an inventor – maybe even good enough to come up with the next iPhone or a new medicine or vaccine – but you might not know it until you do a project for your science class. 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 can’t drop out of school and just drop into a good job. You’ve got to work for it and train 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. 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, skills and intellect so you can help 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.

Now I know it’s not always easy to do well in school. I know a lot of you have challenges in your lives right now that can make it hard to focus on your schoolwork.

I get it. I know what that’s like. My father left my family when I was two years old, and I was raised by a single mother who struggled at times to pay the bills and wasn’t always able to give us things the other kids had. There were times when I missed having a father in my life. There were times when I was lonely and felt like I didn’t fit in.

So I wasn’t always as focused as I should have been. I did some things I’m not proud of, and got in more trouble than I should have. And my life could have easily taken a turn for the worse.

But I was fortunate. I got a lot of second chances and had the opportunity to go to college, and law school, and follow my dreams. My wife, our First Lady Michelle Obama, has a similar story. Neither of her parents had gone to college, and they didn’t have much. But they worked hard, and she worked hard, so that she could go to the best schools in this country.

Some of you might not have those advantages. Maybe you don’t have adults in your life who give you the support that you need. Maybe someone in your family has lost their job, and there’s not enough money to go around. Maybe you live in a neighborhood where you don’t feel safe, or have friends who are pressuring you to do things you know aren’t right.

But at the end of the day, the circumstances of your life – what you look like, where you come from, how much money you have, what you’ve got going on at home – that’s no excuse for neglecting your homework or having a bad attitude. That’s no excuse for talking back to your teacher, or cutting class, or dropping out of school. That’s no excuse for not trying.

Where you are right now doesn’t have to determine where you’ll end up. No one’s written your destiny for you. Here in America, you write your own destiny. You make your own future.
That’s what young people like you are doing every day, all across America.

Young people like Jazmin Perez, from Roma, Texas. Jazmin didn’t speak English when she first started school. Hardly anyone in her hometown went to college, and neither of her parents had gone either. But she worked hard, earned good grades, got a scholarship to Brown University, and is now in graduate school, studying public health, on her way to being Dr. Jazmin Perez.

I’m thinking about Andoni Schultz, from Los Altos, California, who’s fought brain cancer since he was three. He’s endured all sorts of treatments and surgeries, one of which affected his memory, so it took him much longer – hundreds of extra hours – to do his schoolwork. But he never fell behind, and he’s headed to college this fall.

And then there’s Shantell Steve, from my hometown of Chicago, Illinois. Even when bouncing from foster home to foster home in the toughest neighborhoods, she managed to get a job at a local health center; start a program to keep young people out of gangs; and she’s on track to graduate high school with honors and go on to college.

Jazmin, Andoni and Shantell aren’t any different from any of you. They faced challenges in their lives just like you do. But they refused to give up. They chose to take responsibility for their education and set goals for themselves. And I expect all of you to do the same.

That’s why today, I’m calling on each of you to set your own goals for your education – and to do everything you can to meet them. Your goal can be something as simple as doing all your homework, paying attention in class, or spending time each day reading a book. Maybe you’ll decide to get involved in an extracurricular activity, or volunteer in your community. Maybe you’ll decide to stand up for kids who are being teased or bullied because of who they are or how they look, because you believe, like I do, that all kids deserve a safe environment to study and learn. Maybe you’ll decide to take better care of yourself so you can be more ready to learn.

And along those lines, I hope you’ll all wash your hands a lot, and stay home from school when you don’t feel well, so we can keep people from getting the flu this fall and winter.
Whatever you resolve to do, I want you to commit to it. I want you to really work at it.
I know that sometimes, you get the sense from TV that you can be rich and successful without any hard work - that your ticket to success is through rapping or basketball or being a reality TV star, when chances are, you’re not going to be any of those things.

But the truth is, being successful is hard. You won’t love every subject you study. You won’t click with every teacher. Not every homework assignment will seem completely relevant to your life right this minute. And you won’t necessarily succeed at everything the first time you try.

That’s OK. Some of the most successful people in the world are the ones who’ve had the most failures. JK Rowling’s first Harry Potter book was rejected twelve times before it was finally published. Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team, and he lost hundreds of games and missed thousands of shots during his career. But he once said, "I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed."

These people succeeded because they understand that you can’t let your failures define you – you have to let them teach you. You have to let them show you what to do differently next time. If you get in trouble, that doesn’t mean you’re a troublemaker, it means you need to try harder to behave. If you get a bad grade, that doesn’t mean you’re stupid, it just means you need to spend more time studying.

No one’s born being good at things, you become good at things through hard work. You’re not a varsity athlete the first time you play a new sport. You don’t hit every note the first time you sing a song. You’ve got to practice. It’s the same with your schoolwork. You might have to do a math problem a few times before you get it right, or read something a few times before you understand it, or do a few drafts of a paper before it’s good enough to hand in.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it. I do that every day. Asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength. It shows you have the courage to admit when you don’t know something, and to learn something new. So find an adult you trust – a parent, grandparent or teacher; a coach or counselor – and ask them to help you stay on track to meet your goals.

And even when you’re struggling, even when you’re discouraged, and you feel like other people have given up on you – don’t ever give up on yourself. Because when you give up on yourself, you give up on your country.

The story of America isn’t about people who quit when things got tough. It’s about people who kept going, who tried harder, who loved their country too much to do anything less than their best.

It’s the story of students who sat where you sit 250 years ago, and went on to wage a revolution and found this nation. Students who sat where you sit 75 years ago who overcame a Depression and won a world war; who fought for civil rights and put a man on the moon. Students who sat where you sit 20 years ago who founded Google, Twitter and Facebook and changed the way we communicate with each other.

So today, I want to ask you, what’s your contribution going to be? What problems are you going to solve? What discoveries will you make? What will a president who comes here in twenty or fifty or one hundred years say about what all of you did for this country?

Your families, your teachers, and I are doing everything we can to make sure you have the education you need to answer these questions. I’m working hard to fix up your classrooms and get you the books, equipment and computers you need to learn. But you’ve got to do your part too. So I expect you to get serious this year. I expect you to put your best effort into everything you do. I expect great things from each of you. So don’t let us down – don’t let your family or your country or yourself down. Make us all proud. I know you can do it.
Thank you, God bless you, and God bless America.

Filed under: President Obama
soundoff (317 Responses)
  1. Monique, San Diego

    That was an excellent speech! Students, parents, teachers, everyone should understand the value of hard work and education. I don't understand why people are getting all hissy over his speech and the lesson plan, which includes discussions like "What resonated with you from President Obama's speech? What is President Obama inspiring you to do?" What's wrong with questions like that? It allows for a student to look deep within and think about his/her future!!

    September 7, 2009 01:53 pm at 1:53 pm |
  2. Palin 2012 - 2014 1/2

    I knew there would be some brainwashed morons out there that would try to find a problem with the speech(talking to you "Is it 2010 yet?")
    You need to get help...Limbaugh has made you into a spiteful, hateful person, much like he is.
    (Just remember, Limbaugh is just an actor trying to incite people just to make money for himself...If the Repubs would stop paying him, he might even change to a (gasp) liberal!!!)

    September 7, 2009 01:54 pm at 1:54 pm |
  3. Fedupwelephants

    The superintendent of schools in Escambia County FL has caved in under pressure from conservative parents and will not allow the students to hear the President's speech. Of course his excuse is it will take the children away from their lessons. I doubt that a 20 minute talk will make or break these students from graduating over the course of 12 years. Of course consider the possibility that it would be an encouragement to alot of the kids to try harder. If these closed minded parent's don't want their children to hear it then they should keep their kids at home. Why deny everyone the opportunity to appease a few??? It's always those that scream the loudest that win. It's sickening...thank God my children no longer attend public school in this county.

    September 7, 2009 01:55 pm at 1:55 pm |
  4. Dan

    Ya'll think. No one really had issues with the speech. It was the propaganda lesson plans before and after. No that no school is really going to follow the lesson plan, because it is illegal, I will let my child listen to the speech. It is an ok speech.

    September 7, 2009 01:55 pm at 1:55 pm |
  5. howstrategic

    Of course they are releasing something totally great now that parents spoke up. Love how the study materials were "revised". Speech was no doubt revised too. Wish we could have read the first version. Now I just hope he actually says what's written here!

    September 7, 2009 01:56 pm at 1:56 pm |
  6. EBJ

    Sorry CNN but I'm not falling for this. I'm going over to FoxNews where they'll be showing the REAL speech!

    September 7, 2009 01:56 pm at 1:56 pm |
  7. S Callahan New York

    asking children to stay in school and get a degree is not wrong...but personalizing it by saying lets see the most college grads from my term by 2020...... I'm glad they changed the wording and delivery of the speech....I'm not against our children speaking to our children but it should remain focused on Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness for all.

    September 7, 2009 01:56 pm at 1:56 pm |
  8. Ken

    If this incident doesn't show everyone that [R]s are just a bunch of pathetic neo-morons, nothing will. You'd think 8 years of G. Bush would be enough to prove that, but these backwoods anti-intellectuals are still defending that abject failure! And they're hoping all of you dimwits are dumb enough to believe their propaganda that America should fail now - just so their past-stooge of a president and their backwards rightwing policies don't look so bad in comparison.

    September 7, 2009 01:57 pm at 1:57 pm |
  9. Libertarian

    Those parents that don't want to their children to hear this speech are doing NOTHING MORE THAN TEACHING THEM RACISM. They can say all they want about hiding their children from socialism. They just can't stand to see a Black man hold they highest office in the Country. THEY ARE ANTI-AMERICAN.....they are not the typical American.

    I'll be Palin is right there with them spreading the word. "He's a terrorist....and did you know....he's black." You betcha!

    September 7, 2009 01:58 pm at 1:58 pm |
  10. Anonymous

    his lesson plan first of all is not going to be FORCED upon students, and secondly it is not made so students write about how great he is. it's a simple learning tool used very often in schools so kids can start discussions about what they just learned. that's ALL it is.

    and ALL they would write about is what they just HEARD in the speech. nothing more. everyone needs to calm down and be logical about this. it's just a "stay in school and work really hard" speech for god's sake.

    really, people.

    September 7, 2009 01:58 pm at 1:58 pm |
  11. RO

    Wonderful those who complained and fussed abou this are feeling stupid now...of course, they won't admit it. They will probably find some "hidden" passwords between the lines, like Beck does, and put more scare tactics out there to the ignorant ones..

    September 7, 2009 01:59 pm at 1:59 pm |
  12. Post always rejected by CNN

    I guess republicans don't want to inspire their kids to work to do better. To get good jobs, to invent things to improve the country, to put forth new ideas. But then they are republicans. You can't expect them to want to do what is best for the country.

    All they want to do is have big business rake in the money and hold the middle class down. The best thing for this country, kick republicans out of office and don't ever vote one in til they understand this is the country of the people and not of big business.

    September 7, 2009 01:59 pm at 1:59 pm |
  13. Dave R.

    I sincerely hope that every one now realizes how stupid the Republicans' "ready, fire, aim" tactics are. Those that made all of the noise about this speech owe the rest of us, including the President, a HUGE apology. I'll bet that not one of them has the guts to come forward and do that though. This could have been written by Jesus Christ and these people would still whine about it.

    September 7, 2009 02:00 pm at 2:00 pm |
  14. Marie- Silver Spring Md

    Fantastic speech Mr.President and shame on those who decided to keep their kids home and those school districts that decided not to allow the speech.But one has to wonder during the primaries,the election and even recently during during some of the town hall meetings was it ok to let your kids listen to such hateful words?Is this the type of format you want your kids to see and hear and not a word of wisdom from the president.I am so sick of everytime something this president tries his best to make positive it always have to be a political agenda.Whether you like him or not and it may even hurt you to say it but please give him credit on this speech.I know you can do it because regardless of your race,gender,or political stance I firmly beleive you all have a heart that is not always filled with hate

    September 7, 2009 02:00 pm at 2:00 pm |
  15. Wanderer

    It has clearly shown that those who were such a rush to attack and criticize Obama are prejudice. They are also jealous at Obama because they don’t have this kind of wisdom. I hope for those parents who still don’t want your children to listen to this speech will not regret if their children just do the opposite (e.g. drop out school, irresponsibility for themselves, drugs, gang, etc).

    September 7, 2009 02:02 pm at 2:02 pm |
  16. Edwin

    Anyone who thinks this speech is political propaganda hasn't read it.

    September 7, 2009 02:02 pm at 2:02 pm |
  17. wake people

    Well, truth is he changed some of the speech;once the big concerns hit the media. It seems inocuous enough now – but that was not the original plan. Additionally, it's the so called talking points and teacher memos that go along with it that were concerning. This was a slick attempt to through the liberal "obama is a god" theme out to our children. Anyone who disagrees is simply misinformed or an obamaite. Thankfully, it was exposed and he had to change his adgenda. Sweet.

    September 7, 2009 02:03 pm at 2:03 pm |
  18. Karen

    I enjoyed reading his speech. I think it's great that he will take the time out of his busy schedule to encourage our children to to work hard while in school in order to become successful and productive citizens. Good job, Mr. President!

    September 7, 2009 02:04 pm at 2:04 pm |
  19. b nice o

    Good speech Pres Obama. there is nothing wrong with your speech. Those that oppose the idea of you speaking the school children are unpatriotic and don't need to be citizens of the US. Especially that ignorant lady in Colorado Shannon Barron. She hasn't specified a real reason why she is not gonna let her children watch your speech. She really needs to wake up! Her logic is off or she has a screw loose. Alot of Americans are not supporting her and don't agree with her. Down the road, her children are gonna rebel against her because she is keeping them from learning and doing the right thing. Maybe she needs to watch the movie " Do the Right Thing" A person like that is out of touch with reality, just like that Palin woman who hunts wolves.

    September 7, 2009 02:05 pm at 2:05 pm |
  20. T'SAH from Virginia

    OMG – the REPUBLI-CAN'Ts did it again – they put their BIG foot in their BIG mouth and I hope they have KETCHUP to make it all go down their BIG throat!!!

    TO THE WOMAN IN COLORADO – Take your little message and shove it!!!

    September 7, 2009 02:05 pm at 2:05 pm |
  21. Tony

    Hey, Glenn Beck koolaid drinking repubs.... the lesson plan and speech were always optional.... so why are you complaining... you guys really dont understand the word OPTION do you. As much as repubs want states rights they certainly don't support OPTIONS

    September 7, 2009 02:05 pm at 2:05 pm |
  22. Stike1

    How dare the President give a speech like that trying to instill enthusiasm and self motivation to the youth of our nation. Maybe some of the no, no hate fringe could have used some of this before they flunked our of school in the 4th grade. Duh!

    September 7, 2009 02:05 pm at 2:05 pm |
  23. DCTWMT

    Those who call this socialist couldn't define socialism if you held a gun to their heads and a lot of probably couldn't spell it as well. But it was OK when Republican presidents spoke to school kids. Heads-in-the-sand hypocrfites......

    September 7, 2009 02:06 pm at 2:06 pm |
  24. Post always rejected by CNN

    PS since the republicans can't find anything wrong with the speech they are going to slur and flame the person giving it. After what THEY did to this country they ought to be sitting in the corner with a mile high dunce cap on.

    September 7, 2009 02:06 pm at 2:06 pm |
  25. Saul- virginia

    I am so proud to call Barack Hussein Obama my president!!
    Very inspiring speech!!!

    September 7, 2009 02:06 pm at 2:06 pm |
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