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. Peter, San Francisco

    Great speech. All those people that were so busy picking on the President's plan to speak should read it – they might learn a thing or two. That is, assuming they can read, of course.

    September 7, 2009 12:54 pm at 12:54 pm |
  2. Kay

    For the life of me, I don't understand why any parent would object to this speech. Who would not want their child to be encouraged to do their best, to work hard, to make something of themself? All I can say is thank you to a president who cares about our kids, who cares about the future of this great country. The children are our future and we better be willing to invest in and encourage them all we can. Our lives depend upon it.

    September 7, 2009 12:55 pm at 12:55 pm |
  3. JR

    Remember that Colorado mother Shanneen Barron that was ranting and raving over her kids being "forced" to hear the speech? I wonder if she's read it now or if she even can read.

    September 7, 2009 12:55 pm at 12:55 pm |
  4. Kathy

    As a teacher, I truly appreciate President Obama's remarks that he will share on Tuesday. This is a positive and encouraging message for students of all ages. Parents, guardians and teachers share this message every day and it's wonderful for students also to hear this from their President.

    September 7, 2009 12:55 pm at 12:55 pm |
  5. saffta

    This speech is magnificent. Essentially it's what I told each of my children and my grandchildren when they began each year of school.My grandparents arrived in this country about 100 years ago and my parents barely graduated from high school and scraped by to provide a living for their four children. We all went to college and
    I was the first female in my family to graduate from a 4 year college. My children all have graduate degrees and I expect my grandchildren to rise to the highest levels of achievement [they already excel in grade school].
    Expectations were always expressed as 'when you are in college', never, ever, 'if you go to college' . Obama's speech will put the kids on notice that they are the masters of their own destinies. It will show them what we as a society expect of them and hopefully help to counteract some of the indifference they face at home. Now if someone would only tell the parents that they need to play their part as well.

    September 7, 2009 12:55 pm at 12:55 pm |
  6. Jon Lawson

    When I was growing up my parents set high expectations for me and my siblings, and they set a great example for us all. But no one – not my parents, not my teachers, not my guidance counselors – connected the dots and explained why learning things like Algebra, Geometry, and Calculus then would be so important later in my life. Bravo President Obama! And shame on those who have criticized his speaking to the future of our country. I wish I had heard this from President Nixon when I was in school.

    September 7, 2009 12:55 pm at 12:55 pm |
  7. Tamara

    Excellent and moving. Any parent, principal or school entity that finds fault with these words needs to look inside himself to find and admit what the real problem is. It starts with a closed mind with the result of a closed heart.
    Yes, I proudly voted for President Obama, stand behind him 100% and look forward to all the positive changes his leadership is and will bring.

    September 7, 2009 12:56 pm at 12:56 pm |
  8. Michelle from Texas

    So everyone who was in such a rush to attack this president for wanting to speak with the school children of America do you see how ridiculous your attitude and concerns were? A father, an educated man who faced difficult circumstances whats to be an inspiration to all of our children he wants them to BELIEVE they too can be successful. He wants them to avail themselves of the opportunity to get an education and use that education in the future for the benefit of the U.S. and the world. He asks them to engage in a terrific opportunity and he tells them they have a responsibility to do well and try hard. Sounds like my parents talking to me, and me talking to my children. That kind of support and inspiration should be welcomed by any parent, educator regardless of your political leanings.
    Try to look beyond the narrowness of your own political beliefs into a future where we learn that we are stronger as a nation when we pull together, and we have more in common and a good solid education for all of our children should be our focus not finding any way possible to attack our president

    September 7, 2009 12:56 pm at 12:56 pm |
  9. theMark

    Flash in the Pan – "School good, stay there. Unless you're sick. Work hard."

    Hope that helps you. The rest of us seem to understand it just fine.

    September 7, 2009 12:56 pm at 12:56 pm |
  10. Dedra Simmons

    Oh yeah, I can TOTALLY see where this speech will harm school children all across America! Exactly who does Obama think he is to tell these children to work harder? Where does Obama get off, telling these children prepare themselves for a brighter future no matter where their reality lies? Yep, those conservatives have really made a point...

    September 7, 2009 12:57 pm at 12:57 pm |
  11. Farrell in Houston

    A woman in Colorado and maybe several others need to know the speech is plain and simple English. That woman said "she's American and her children are American and I'm afraid for them to hear our President speech". THE SPEECH IS IN ENGLISH AND NO OTHER LANGUAGE, JUST PLAIN AND SIMPLE ENGLISH BUT I MUST SAY OUR CHILDREN DO NEED TO LEARN OTHER LANGUAGES TO CATCH UP WITH THE REST OF THE CHILDREN OF THE WORLD.

    September 7, 2009 12:57 pm at 12:57 pm |
  12. Voice of Reason

    So this isn't very frightening at all. Do the fearmongers, divisive partisans and low-info voters feel silly now?

    September 7, 2009 12:57 pm at 12:57 pm |
  13. Melanie

    Very well said Mr. President. As a retired elementary school teacher for 30 years, and mother and grandmother for more than that, everything you have said is so important. I sincerely wish all of our nation's children and adults will adhere to what you expect. It will surely make our children and grandchildren, nation, schools, families, support groups and work places to have a genuine focus on what is, without doubt, first priority as I see it.

    May God bless you, your family and all your endeavors as our Great President.

    Sincerely, Melanie Roberts Moore

    September 7, 2009 12:58 pm at 12:58 pm |
  14. Robert

    It seems like a pretty typical Obama inspirational speech to me. I failed to see any pushing of "socialist agendas" and the only indoctrination was that typical of our American and societal values- work hard to succeed, stay in school, etc. The only thing I thought was that perhaps this speech would be better targeted to the older students, maybe middle school or even junior high and up. Little heady for the younger set, but really, the message is the same we send to our children every day. As usual, a bit of a conservative tempest in a teapot.

    September 7, 2009 12:58 pm at 12:58 pm |
  15. Ed Dangler - CAPT USN (ret)

    This speech shoud be given at the beginning of every school year to remind students what is expected of them, and the fact that success in any endeavor is not given, it is earned.

    I wish I had President Obama come to my 4th grade class when I was a rather wild little kid at PS # 42 in The Bronx. Fortunately, some teachers in my later classes gave me some guidance and showed me that cutting up and being silly was not the way to succeed. I am sure every student seeing this speech by our President will be inspired and take the message to heart.

    As we say in the Navy, BRAVO ZULU Mr. President, you are truly an inspiration to our nation and the world.

    September 7, 2009 12:59 pm at 12:59 pm |
  16. Dianna

    What an inspiring message to all of us not just our students. If we all tried to do and be the best we can, this country would once again stand for what it once was. Perhaps we would once again learn to think and listen for ourselves. Instead of listening to the pundit's rants and raves, we could turn them off,and as Prsident Obama states don't be lazy do your homework, then make your own decision.

    September 7, 2009 12:59 pm at 12:59 pm |
  17. Independent in Missouri

    OMG! No WONDER the Party of No hates the idea of the President talking like this to school children!

    They might actually have some self-esteem, motivation to learn and become a productive citizen of the USA and - God forbid - VOTE.

    I pity the brain-dead idiots who can only hate the intelligent, black man we elected in November without reason.... or at least, without being willing to just stand up and say, Yes, I AM a RACIST and that's reason enough.

    No, they want to make it about anything and everything BUT their own feeble little minds and sheep-like personalities.

    September 7, 2009 12:59 pm at 12:59 pm |
  18. Kevin B

    Lets ready to hear all of the hysterical "concerned citizen" who opposed this very thoughtful and inspiring address to all students, attempt to turn it into something ugly, foul and sinister.

    Please GOP hair on fire, conspiracy nuts, keep up with the shrill hateful rhetoric, all you are doing is ensuring the president looks graceful is the face of your onslaught of bigoted cowardice.

    September 7, 2009 01:00 pm at 1:00 pm |
  19. Sleepy

    All community and no individualism. Social justice, Aid and the environment? Yeash... glad my school district is going to air this junk.

    "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."

    September 7, 2009 01:00 pm at 1:00 pm |
  20. sandy

    An excellent speech for the children of this county and I expected no less from President Obama. I think folks got their undies in a bundle for absolutely no reason. I am appalled that folks are advocating their children skip school to avoid this speech. Absolutely appalled.

    September 7, 2009 01:00 pm at 1:00 pm |
  21. Eve

    There are so many stupid people in this country!! You are protesting the president encouraging education... are you kidding me?? I applaud him trying to inspire the citizens (young and old) to have goals, pursue education to achieve those goals and to be better than a lazy, drunk, brain-dead loser for this country. We are not going to remain a great country if there are more dimwits than intelligent people living here.

    September 7, 2009 01:01 pm at 1:01 pm |
  22. Shelly

    Great speech from a man who has lived a truly inspiring life.
    His intelligence, integrity and good heart should make us all proud to be American. He is the product of the American dream.....Our founding fathers would be proud!
    My kids will watch his speech with pride.

    September 7, 2009 01:01 pm at 1:01 pm |
  23. Buddy Gilmour

    Its a nice pep talk. Perhaps schoolkids will be encouraged that someone like the President takes an interest in them. Folks who paint this as some sort of brainwashing attempt by the Dems are simply in denial wrt the fact that our President is a Democrat. They need to get with the program, because if he fails we all fail. And by the way the last president, I think his name was Bush, was a huge failure. Thats why a Democrat is now President. Thats the way democracy works, its self-correcting. When the Republicans have someone worthy to offer perhaps they will regain the Presidency. Perhaps smeone like Sarah Palin 😉

    September 7, 2009 01:01 pm at 1:01 pm |
  24. jean

    As a foreigner who has been following US politics for a long time, i unfortunately come to one conclusion the republican party is just full of racist, they cant say it publicly , so they find all kinds of excuses to bash President Obama, yes repukes he is the President. So grow up and deal with it.

    September 7, 2009 01:02 pm at 1:02 pm |
  25. jasmine

    I think the speech is a little long, and most importantly, geared toward older kids, not kindergartners , 1st or 2nd graders. But I think the speech is encouraging for high schoolers. I think the big hoopla some are putting on this speech is that they don't like the Pres. They need to get over it and accept him. At least he is trying to do something for us, but it always seems he's up against a brick wall. I believe he really cares about us, not like the previous administration, who seemed to be more interested in lining their own pockets! I hope nobody buys Cheneys book. That guy will do anything for money!!!!

    September 7, 2009 01:03 pm at 1:03 pm |
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