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. Truth Teller

    So where's the indoctrination? Where's the invitation to join the socialist party? Where are all the fears members of the right wing are talking about? I'll tell you where it is, it is in the mind of those who can't think for themselves, and let those in their party dictate to them how and what to think. Talk about indoctrination.

    September 7, 2009 12:43 pm at 12:43 pm |
  2. CatScratch

    Well that was just terrifying...I feel brainwashed already. Know that we now are children arn't being indocrinated, I pretty sure I'll be seeing apologies from the right...NOT!!

    September 7, 2009 12:43 pm at 12:43 pm |
  3. Robert Misko

    Gee, what a surprise. Nothing here to make children run home to their parents in fear because the President wanted to take a few minutes to urge them to have a good year in school. What a frightening idea! It is very sad that there are people in America who are so consumed with fear that even providing TV access to the President of the United States for a few minutes has these people shaking in their shoes. Schools are supposed to be places that welcome the discussion and exchange of ideas. If students cannot learn and practice this important skill, how will they manage this concept when they are adults? Students need to learn that democratic societies feed on and grow from this healthy exchange of ideas.

    September 7, 2009 12:44 pm at 12:44 pm |
  4. joe

    Oh no, real IDEAS! Run, hide your children!

    September 7, 2009 12:44 pm at 12:44 pm |
  5. J.Frank Hernandez

    Excellent remarks! I wonder, where's the Stalinist indoctrination? The Leninist call to submit? Of course, we will hear nothing of those things now because those who oppose things before they even review them never admit their prejudices after the fact.

    Way to go, Mr. President. A wonderful message delivered at the perfect time. Stay strong in the face of inane opposition.

    September 7, 2009 12:44 pm at 12:44 pm |
  6. Truth-Bomb Thrower

    Just so you simple-minded Obama Kool-aid drinkers understand…..the actual speech has never been the problem. The problem is the lesson (or indoctrination) plan that was to come with it.

    When school children are forced to write essays on "how they can help their leader," or "how their leader has inspired them," it is no longer just a lesson or a pep-talk, it's brainwashing. This is the kind of stuff that children in NORTH KOREA are forced to do. But then again, maybe that is why the Obama people liked the idea.

    September 7, 2009 12:44 pm at 12:44 pm |
  7. Tony

    So where is the so-called politics in this speech. I think that some parents need to be in school more than their kids.

    September 7, 2009 12:44 pm at 12:44 pm |
  8. True but...

    the kids need support

    and figure out this national debt... way out of control

    September 7, 2009 12:44 pm at 12:44 pm |
  9. Mary Gail O'Dea

    I hope that every American who has been engaged in hysterics over this speech for the last week feels deeply and appropriately ashamed. This is a wonderful speech for every child to hear. Grow up, fellow citizens.

    September 7, 2009 12:45 pm at 12:45 pm |
  10. Larry, North Hollywood, CA

    Great speech. Very inspiring for young minds...I hope they listen, and I hope those who doubted the President's message will eat the crow they need to eat for overreating.

    September 7, 2009 12:45 pm at 12:45 pm |
  11. Tia Beta

    What's wrong with America? We finally have a President with good common sense, who happens to really care, and all we hear is people nagging and whining because he is talking to the kids about what is really important? His speeches should be mandatory!

    September 7, 2009 12:45 pm at 12:45 pm |
  12. Judy

    As a former successful motivator of middle & hight school kids, I find this to be a motivating address that no child in the USA should miss.
    Shame on those in Virginia who put the SOLs ahead of the President's message.

    September 7, 2009 12:45 pm at 12:45 pm |
  13. bill

    You in the media should do your job and call this so called outrage what it is, racist lunacy. Obama stand up or you will be replace after 1 term. You cant satisfy these people. The leaders of the republican party want stand up an take these people on so they are part of the problem also.

    September 7, 2009 12:46 pm at 12:46 pm |
  14. Jorge en Texas

    To those who keep complaining about the lesson plan:
    Have you actually read the entire lesson plan in its final form?
    The Secretary of Education has already acknowledged that some of the wording designed to inspire the kids to help President Obama achieve the goals set out in the speech was not well-crafted, and it has been changed. Why do you and your fellow-travelers keep harping on the old wording and trying to make it sound like something it is not?

    September 7, 2009 12:46 pm at 12:46 pm |
  15. Susan

    Thank you, Mr. President. I'm proudly going to let my two children listen to this speech tomorrow. I wish I could have heard something like this when I was in school. I don't find anything inappropriate with this speech. I think anyone who would keep their child home after reading the text is playing politics or has some other issue that they aren't confessing to with the President. I think this speech is well written and inspirational. I can't wait to talk to my kids when they get home tomorrow and share their thoughts on having had the President of the U.S. talk to them and offer them encouragement as they begin their school year. It's very historical. By the way, I'm a Republican, and whether or not I voted for Mr. Obama, I respect him as our President. Thank you.

    September 7, 2009 12:46 pm at 12:46 pm |
  16. kate

    What an excellent speech to our students. what has all the hoopla about this speech been about? I think that it is wonderful that the presidents of our country have directly addressed our youths. I don't care what political affliation the President belongs to when he is speaking to our kids regarding their focus and behavior in school. Bush addressed students and now Obama is . Thank goodness that we have leaders that can set aside political differences and focus on the real future...our children. Now if only the adults could...

    September 7, 2009 12:46 pm at 12:46 pm |
  17. Vickie

    As a recently retired school teacher I couldn't have said it any better. Thank you, Mr. President.

    September 7, 2009 12:46 pm at 12:46 pm |
  18. Tony Minich

    Now that I've read the text, it is just as I've suspected all along. This is a speech that has absolutely wrong with it and everything right. So will a staunch Republican step up to the bat and tell me what the problem is?

    It is a controversy like this that caused me to leave the Republican Party several years ago (just for the record, Democrats aren't any better). There is no reason for any controversy. The President is shooting from the hip to kids that need to remain in school. There is no politics in the speech and, even if there were, he IS the President. A lot of other Presidents have added politics to a lot of their speeches.

    Let's show the support for OUR President that he deserves (after all, he is OUR President, regardless of your party affiliation).

    September 7, 2009 12:47 pm at 12:47 pm |
  19. KD in Houston

    I hope every parent who was screaming "bloody murder" about the president trying to "indoctrinate" the school children tomorrow... read the speech (which is now posted online), and feel absolutely ashamed and embarrassed that that jumped to such assumptions. But who am I kidding someone is going to find something wrong with it. HAPPY LABOR DAY!

    September 7, 2009 12:47 pm at 12:47 pm |
  20. Larry, North Hollywood, CA

    ...should have been 'over-reACTing'... looks like I wrote 'over-eating', which would be a DIFFERENT presidential speech altogether. lol

    September 7, 2009 12:47 pm at 12:47 pm |
  21. David Morris

    What an excellent speech!

    I hope that releasing this in advance of his delivery tomorrow will put an end to all the hateful and paranoid complaints that President Obama is somehow trying to "indocrinate" our children or force them to accept some horrible left-wing – of God help us, even "Socialist" – philisophy.

    Nothing of the sort! All the man is try to do is encourage and motivate our children to do and be the best they possibly can, regardless of the external challenges they face.

    I really to hope that conservatives will give Obama credit for this speech and at least in some small way back off of the hyperbole and criticism that they seem to feel is necessary. Before they attack him, they should see what he has to offer.

    I certainly hope the Fox News and the Washington Times, to name a few, will have the courage and courtesy to show/publish this in its entirety.

    Bravo, Mr. President! Here's wishing you as much success in your other endeavors.

    September 7, 2009 12:47 pm at 12:47 pm |
  22. American Airman

    I hope his teleprompter doesn't malfunction during this speech. I am sure that he can't say all of this without reading it word for word.

    September 7, 2009 12:47 pm at 12:47 pm |
  23. Mike

    And people were outraged that the President would try to motivate students with a speech like this. This is exactly what needs to be said to our children and who better to say it than the President of the country.

    Why do conservatives have to politicize every action by Obama and get up in arms about something they wouldn't question for a second if it was undertaken by a Republican president?

    September 7, 2009 12:47 pm at 12:47 pm |
  24. Kathleen Lasseter

    This is my 37th year being a teacher. I look forward to having President Obama inspire my students with his speech.How anyone can twist his words to make it Obama "ideology" is beyond comprehension? It is a coach's pep talk to encourage kids to do their best!

    September 7, 2009 12:48 pm at 12:48 pm |
  25. Rebecca

    As a middle school teacher, I can say that this is a message that kids needs to hear. I use the same Michael Jordan quote in my classroom.

    September 7, 2009 12:48 pm at 12:48 pm |
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