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. Burns NH

    Thanks for sharingf that "story",I am sure we can all relate to it. I would ask why would any parent with such high level of schooling
    be doing in an atmosphere so detrimental to her own child,when
    her own country had so much more to offer. Would other parents
    do the same when other alternatives were available. You would
    have been accepted to any consulate sponsored school. Your
    story does not equate in truth.

    September 7, 2009 02:06 pm at 2:06 pm |
  2. once upon a horse

    of course now the far right will probably say he CHANGED it because they called him out on it before the speech was made.

    September 7, 2009 02:07 pm at 2:07 pm |
  3. Barbara

    This has been such a ridiculous. non-issue. Where were these idiot protestors when the good ole Republican boys spoke to our students? President Obama is an inspiration to me so I can't image how inspiring a child sitting in a classroom would feel. He is a proud example to all of us; a fine example when one applies themselves and takes responsibility. Maybe all the weirdos calling this President horrible names should take this as an example. I do think our country has very serious issues to deal with-shame all all you spinners trying to derail President Obama. I'd still like to see Fox fire that ridiculous Beck-what a loud mouth-What a Joke!

    September 7, 2009 02:07 pm at 2:07 pm |
  4. Lisa

    Wow, I wonder what the "paranoid/I want my country back" will criticize this with? LMAO....

    September 7, 2009 02:08 pm at 2:08 pm |
  5. Peace

    Brilliant speech. I urge the teachers to tape the speech. Make handouts, distribute them to students.
    Let them read it as much as they wish. It will help them a lot and it will make the work of teachers much easier!

    September 7, 2009 02:11 pm at 2:11 pm |
  6. Independent

    Great Speech.....I told my son the same hard and study...

    September 7, 2009 02:12 pm at 2:12 pm |
  7. Will

    What a perfect speech to an audience that needs to hear these words. I was dismayed that in my hometown, San Antonio, many of the larger school districts chose last week to not offer the broadcast to their students. How sad, San Antonio (and other cities as well), that in a time when we hear day after day, "the burden we are leaving our children", we refuse them something free and of true value. Shame on you for allowing false fears to override common sense. Shame on you.

    September 7, 2009 02:12 pm at 2:12 pm |
  8. Leanderjim

    For students to write essays on this speech, also goes beyond conservative comprehension...........the essays are to come up with ideas to help other students as well as themselves to follow the points of the speech, that is, hard work, staying in school and making something of themselves. How you conservatives can contiue to find that this is in some way political or Obama worship is just beyond me. I just love the way you are paving the way for total Republican annihilation come 2010. Keep it up guys..............

    September 7, 2009 02:13 pm at 2:13 pm |
  9. Patricia

    How can anyone object to this message. If more of us had someone like the President giving motivational messages the world would be a better place. Imagine how many young people we could have kept off drugs, out of prison and from dying young because of the wrong choices made. I hope that everyone who fought this message based on their racist beliefs are ashamed of themselves. This is a message of hope to our young generation. Hope that they will grow up to be someone who will not judge someone by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. President Obama has character. I am so glad that he is my President. I pray that President Obama never give up the fight to make thiscountry a better place for everyone regardless of the color of their skin.

    It will be a great day for America when the color of one's skin doesn't define the person.

    September 7, 2009 02:13 pm at 2:13 pm |
  10. FL for Change

    Thank you, Mr. President. As an elementary teacher in the public school system, I appreciate your encouragement. That's all it is...plain and simple. You are encouraging children to study hard, stay in school, and work to become successful. That's what PARENTS should be doing but, as seen so often in my classrooms, parents are absent in their children's lives. Anyone who thinks this speech is anything other than inspiring really needs to take a close look at their own views and opinions. Oh, and how about volunteering at a local school. Perhaps then you would understand the challenges we face on a daily basis. If you do not want this "socialist" speech in the classroom, then I suggest you remove your child from FREE public school and enroll them in a private school. And you need to refuse your Medicare and Social Security benefits when you retire. It's time to put stupidity, hatred, and bigotry behind us and move forward. Trust me, our children are watching us...

    September 7, 2009 02:13 pm at 2:13 pm |
  11. Scottielo

    A speech by the president should be in innocuous exercise in civics and public discourse. It should be applauded as a great learning tool about the Office of the presidency, and what powers are granted it by our constitutional contract.

    Unfortunately, through the proposed lesson plan, and to a lesser exent, the speech itself; it has become a whole "Cult of Personality" event. The direction of the speech and lesson plan seems to be more about the president than the President.

    September 7, 2009 02:14 pm at 2:14 pm |
  12. m jeff

    Hannity and Beck, and fox will find something wrong with this speech.

    September 7, 2009 02:14 pm at 2:14 pm |
  13. T'SAH from Virginia

    One WACKO-MOM in Colorado stated yesterday: “Thinking about my kids in school having to listen to that just really upsets me… I’m an American. They are Americans, and I don’t feel that’s OK. I feel very scared to be in this country with our leadership right now.”

    What bothers me is the fact that Ms. Colorado did not even know what President Obama was going to say!!!!! She most likely listens to Fox News and took everything they spoke about like it was coming from the bible. If she does not agree with what our President has said – then she is NOT American!!!

    September 7, 2009 02:15 pm at 2:15 pm |
  14. Timothy S.

    On behalf of all students in this great nation – Thank you Mr. President!

    September 7, 2009 02:18 pm at 2:18 pm |
  15. Heidi

    This is taking ignorance to another level.

    Now I get it. These folks seek to keep people in bondage through stupidity and the destruction of education. I mean come on folks when you start arguing against the President for encouraging kids to do well in school.... you have serious issues. Honestly, the folks really being indoctrinated are those who are being blindly led to stand against common sense, good judgment, respect for others and an educated society.

    Education is the key to unlock the golden door of freedom. George Washington Carver

    September 7, 2009 02:18 pm at 2:18 pm |
  16. T'SAH from Virginia

    I am hurt because this speech was spoken to children in the Northern part of Virginia and I live in Chesterfield County VA and they ARE NOT showing the speech at our schools... I am very upset because I WAS NOT ASKED if it is okay NOT to show the video!!! Therefore, who made that decision???? I will PROTEST!!!

    September 7, 2009 02:18 pm at 2:18 pm |
  17. Candy Wilson

    Absolutely Excellent.. As my daughter is a teacher I am thrilled every time the President speaks on education.. This is one main reason I campaigned for him.. Very Inspiring.. This can ONLY Better our great country.. Thankyou.

    September 7, 2009 02:19 pm at 2:19 pm |
  18. Don

    "Make us all proud"! He snuck it in right there at the end! That's a direct quote from Lenin in his message to the Soviet Workers in 1919. I knew Obama would insert his Socialist Agenda somewhere.

    I'm not sure if FOX News is working full time to boost the ratings of the Republicans, or the other way around, but this fear mongering is not helping the American people and they should demand better.

    September 7, 2009 02:19 pm at 2:19 pm |
  19. normajean

    I can't say that the presidents speech was anything other than what I, a white senior woman thought it would be,.straight forward, hopefully encouraging, and certainly something for the young people hearing it to take to heart, knowing that everyone doesn't have an easy time getting where they would like to be.President Obama said it beautifully, despite the disgusting circus that the defectors made it. I'm hoping a lot of adults learned something from it,too.,maybe
    that negativity is not what we want our young people to start life with.

    September 7, 2009 02:20 pm at 2:20 pm |
  20. Guido Matrecano

    What a great speech. Two problems...instead of picking on just XBOX should have said video games, and he said you can become anything but did not say you can even become president. Now, do you see how stupid my two problems are. This was and will be a great motivational speech. I won't say it but I'm sure many of you REALLY know what all the fuss is about.

    September 7, 2009 02:21 pm at 2:21 pm |
  21. Alphonso Coleman

    I found the Presidents speech to be one of the best motivational speeches I have read and intend to hear. I grew up in the inner city raised by a single mother and grandmother who stressed the importance of an education along with aunts, and uncles. These are the words that our young people from all walks of life need to hear, they are positive and encouraging. I hope and Pray that every parent in America will send their child to school and allow them to hear these inspiring words from the President of The United States, President Obama.

    September 7, 2009 02:21 pm at 2:21 pm |
  22. West

    Who indoctrinate kids here? Convervative republicans or Obama? Less educated people are easily manipulated. Republican and communist party leaders rely on them to support their agenda.

    September 7, 2009 02:22 pm at 2:22 pm |
  23. cancun

    Wow, none of you get it......never will I guess.......but I'm sure you'll all be this supportive when a Republican gets in 2012 to clean up this mess we have and wants to do the same thing in our schools (without the government approved "lesson" plans).......(sound of crickets chirping).........

    September 7, 2009 02:22 pm at 2:22 pm |
  24. Gasman

    Wait a minute! This isn't anything like Beck or the other FauxNews hyper-ventilators said it would be. What gives?

    There are no quotes from "The Communist Manifesto." There is no singing of "The Internationale." The is no marching in unison. No feverish cries of "Down with capitalism!" Not even a single command to bow to Obama.

    Could it be that Beck and FauxNews exaggerated when they said this speech would corrupt our children and brainwash them into becoming fascist/commie zombies? Could it be that FauxNews isn't the great oracle of truth that we've been told?

    I'll bet the world won't stop tomorrow and not a single child will come home carrying Mao's Little Red Book.

    September 7, 2009 02:23 pm at 2:23 pm |
  25. T'SAH from Virginia

    BRAINWASH THEM!!!! Brainwash them ALL!! Make sure their brains are filled with HOPE, ENCOURAGEMENT and GROWTH.... Because without it – they will become REPUBLI-CAN'Ts!!!

    September 7, 2009 02:23 pm at 2:23 pm |
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