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. Jackson

    I commend President Obama for that wonderful speech to school children. Children are smart and his speech was uplifting and full of encouragement. The whiners in this country will always be whiners. Thanks you, President Obama for taking the time for all student in the school system. They, one day, will be running our country.

    September 7, 2009 02:24 pm at 2:24 pm |
  2. Michael M, Phoenix AZ

    As an educator myself, I see nothing wrong with Pres Obama speaking directly to the school children. Maybe if Pres Bush had been more pro-education than even his No Child Left Behind concept we wouldn't be in this educational mess we are in today.

    September 7, 2009 02:25 pm at 2:25 pm |
  3. Collin

    It is completely obvious that the right-wingers jumped the gun with positively NO EVIDENCE of what was going to be in the speech! When the Florida GOP chair went on all the talking head shows, he tried to stress the original lesson plans as the problem, even though all of his comments were on socialist propaganda. This is just another example of how this is beyond being the loyal opposition; this is "hate and criticize first, ask questions later". The right wing has once again proved themselves to be nothing but bitter, impulsive, and systematic liars!

    September 7, 2009 02:25 pm at 2:25 pm |
  4. Di

    Are you people braindead? This was changed AFTER there were complaints. Left out? The section telling kids to listen to their elected officials and what can you do for Obama? How convenient to pretend that was not included, but it was. In its present form, it is acceptable, but it wasn't. It took the Republicans to correct this.

    September 7, 2009 02:25 pm at 2:25 pm |
  5. Irene

    The news media (all the news media) sickens me! You people are only interested in your ratings. You know that, and I know that! You people don't care if you help to mislead and distort information simply so you can create controversy. Unfortunately, most people are easily manipulated by the media, and they don't even know it. This being the case, people are panicking needlessly, and this situation may very well derail the health care reform we so desperately need. If you people want to be respectable journalists, stop displaying the news as if it's one long soap opera!
    Irene Baur

    September 7, 2009 02:26 pm at 2:26 pm |
  6. Dave

    Wait, where are the offensive parts?
    Did you edit CNN?

    Wait. Are you saying this is the whole speech?

    And that those patriots who object are idiots?

    Well, if that's what you want to say.

    September 7, 2009 02:29 pm at 2:29 pm |
  7. Israel Barreto

    I really think the GOP and those in the Red states who are showing so much disdain and hate to "OUR" president need to rethink their actions and rejoin society. We, the rest of the country love you and we believe we are all one. I hope you stop pulling us apart. You may want to stop listening to the likes of Limbaugh and Beck.

    September 7, 2009 02:29 pm at 2:29 pm |
  8. D. Tree

    It's sad that we allow these bitter and ignorant people to cast doubt on our own elected president. He is the leader of our country, and he is responsible for our PUBLIC schools.

    September 7, 2009 02:30 pm at 2:30 pm |
  9. colleen

    Excellent speech. I copied and pasted it to save on Word..another invention that the youth of this country invented by hard work and education. I will pull this speech out for my son to read at the beginning of each school year and start a new family tradition. While I give a version of this speech many times a year for encouragement, Obama has said it better than I could have. Thank you for caring about my son Obama.

    September 7, 2009 02:30 pm at 2:30 pm |
  10. Claudia C

    Wonderful speech Mr. President. We're proud of you.

    September 7, 2009 02:31 pm at 2:31 pm |
  11. Mat

    I wonder if people will feel foolish for believing this speech was such a horrible thing.

    September 7, 2009 02:31 pm at 2:31 pm |
  12. FnSlwHnd

    Even if the objection to all this was/is the idea of a "lesson plan", I seem to remember being asked to write essays about how something or someone inspired me while I was in school. Why is it a bad thing for any American child to be asked to respond to an inspirational speech by their president regardless of his political party? If, as is claimed by the nay-sayers in these comments, the content is fine and to be admired, why would they object to children being encouraged to support these ideas? If it isn't the ideas, it's purely an objection to the one presenting the ideas. What an incredibly juvenile reaction.

    September 7, 2009 02:32 pm at 2:32 pm |
  13. Anonymous

    great speech

    September 7, 2009 02:32 pm at 2:32 pm |
  14. MLH

    This is the kind of talk that makes a great deal of sense. It is concrete and goes beyond the 'stay in school' 'do your best' type thing kids hear. This talk explains why it is important to stay in school and do your best, and acknowledges that it isn't always easy to do so.

    Thank you Mr. President.

    September 7, 2009 02:33 pm at 2:33 pm |
  15. Ed, Santa Fe, NM

    Well said, Mr. President..... now let's watch the GOP put a snarky spin on this speech

    September 7, 2009 02:34 pm at 2:34 pm |
  16. Steven J Thompson

    Thank you, Mr. President, you've done an awesome job, as always!

    September 7, 2009 02:36 pm at 2:36 pm |
  17. truthsayer

    Be afraid, be very afraid of the intelligent black man our President . He is trying to make our kids educated and ready for the challenges of the 21st century and beyond. Ohhhhhh be very afraid....

    September 7, 2009 02:36 pm at 2:36 pm |
  18. Henry Miller, Libertarian


    I'm no Obama fan, but this is good stuff for school kids. Even if they don't show the speech at my kids' school, I'm going to insist they read it.

    September 7, 2009 02:36 pm at 2:36 pm |
  19. Chipster

    I'd like to point out that this is a good message for adults too. We don't stop learning when we get that diploma or degree. We can still set goals. We can return to school – I did after 35 years and finally finished my degree.

    We're never to old to set goals and work hard to achieve them. We are the masters of our fate.

    September 7, 2009 02:36 pm at 2:36 pm |
  20. Tom

    Wow. Not a single response (that I see so far) from those who were opposed to the President's speech. Not a one.

    My guess is that those who were against President Obama's speech are going to fall under one of these categories:

    1. Refuse to read it - because heaven forbid they do, they may have to admit there’s nothing wrong with it and look utterly foolish for their bashing.

    2. Read it, realize they were wrong, but not have the courage and humility to admit it.

    3. Read it and find lots of cryptic Davinci Code-like secret messages that the President slipped in to subjegate our children and turn them into his unholy socialist army.

    I wish I could say there is a fourth choice…those who read it, realize there was nothing wrong with it, and let their kids listen tomorrow.

    But I suspect those people will be few and far between.

    September 7, 2009 02:36 pm at 2:36 pm |
  21. Annette Rainer

    What an awesome speech... everyone in this Country need to praise anybody that has the ability to stand up and tell young kids the truth about staying in school. I work in Juvenile Justice and I see kids dropping out of school everyday in Georgia with no future but prison and these are not just black kids, they are also white and hispanic. We have to remember that our children will one day lead thi Country and we have to do everything possible to nurture and mold future leaders..... Who does not want their children to succeed. Anyone who is objecting to this speech is just ignorant and needs a reality check! It is not the speech, it is the fact that a black man is the President and trying to do something positive. I wonder if Obama was a white President making this same speech would they have a problem with it?

    September 7, 2009 02:37 pm at 2:37 pm |
  22. stormerF

    The speech is so wishy washy why give it at all?What a waste of time for the President,why is he not focused on the Economy and the failing Stimulis bill to create jobs?

    September 7, 2009 02:37 pm at 2:37 pm |
  23. MB

    Wow...he sure is pushing his socialist agenda here!

    September 7, 2009 02:38 pm at 2:38 pm |
  24. Jennie

    I can only laugh when I read the few comments on here against the all they can say is it will be boring!!! Priceless!!! Man up and admit you were wrong!!! As a teacher and mom of 3...this is an amazing speech with such a powerful message for our kids!!!

    September 7, 2009 02:38 pm at 2:38 pm |
  25. Joe In Nevada

    I think it is sad that our President has to publish his speech so that it is pre-approved by those who fear having a black man speak to their children.

    September 7, 2009 02:39 pm at 2:39 pm |
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