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. Will Always Suppot President Obama

    Why wouldn't any parent want the President to take an interest in their child's education? I fell sorry for those persons who became "outraged" without all of the facts.

    Sadly, it wouldn't have mattered whether the speech was given out before hand, some people in our country hate him just because and would have found a way to criticize or question his "diabolical" motive to motivate.

    It does take a village to raise a child-I guess some just don't want a certain kind looking out for their children. OH well, I will pray for those "Christians." May God help and forgive them!

    September 7, 2009 01:03 pm at 1:03 pm |
  2. Perusing-through

    GOOD SPEECH, , , so what's the issue? Why are the rightwing nuts having psychotic convulsions?

    September 7, 2009 01:03 pm at 1:03 pm |
  3. tim b

    I have printed this speech and not only expect my son to listen when the president delivers it but will make him read it several times this year. I have explained to my son that the president is talking directly to him and that the expectations that I have for him are shared by the President. Thank you President Obama for taking an interest in my child's education. This speech will be a great motivator for both my son and myself not just this year but for the future as well.

    September 7, 2009 01:03 pm at 1:03 pm |
  4. DC - Sebastopol, CA

    I can't wait to hear what the talking heads (Limbaugh, Hannity, Beck and the other FAUX news idiots) have to say... or what misinterpretation Ms. Moosekiller and other neo fascist Party of No members will give us.

    BRAVO, Mr. President. THIS is why we elected you. You are an inspiration to ALL children AND adults, if they just listen.

    September 7, 2009 01:04 pm at 1:04 pm |
  5. Mario

    He changed the speech after the Conservatives made everyone aware.

    September 7, 2009 01:04 pm at 1:04 pm |
  6. Mike in MT

    I thought the 'education' speech to our children and somewhat to parents, and teachers was very good. I believe after reading the speech.., President Obama just wants the best concerning education for his daughters and our children. He wants all of us to do better. Which we can. Our education of our children and some adults is the 'future' of this country. Without it, were going to fall behind other nations that put a great importance on education. I frankly didn't see anything 'political' in the speech. We can do better. Mike in Montana

    September 7, 2009 01:05 pm at 1:05 pm |
  7. Robert

    I hope the boneheads who were so frightened by the idea that their chidren were going to be used by the President to brainwash their little baby-bigots read the text of his talk and hide their heads in shame. Who would you seriously rather have as their teacher, Dick Chaney / George Bush or Baraka Obama? (if you picked the first pair, God help you)

    September 7, 2009 01:05 pm at 1:05 pm |
  8. Dale

    For all of you "right wingers," who are commenting on the "lesson plan..." the President changed the lesson plan because of your hysterics. When did George W. Bush ever change any of his rhetoric or actions in response to the criticism of others? Obama listens to the concerns of the citizens of this country. Bush didn't care, he only wanted to push his agenda and please his supporters!!

    September 7, 2009 01:06 pm at 1:06 pm |
  9. Dawn

    Goodness, sure wished our president would've made a speech like that when I was in school!

    Kudos to President Obama for the ability to muti-task–to focus on health care, the economy and our children ALL at the same time! Way to go, Mr. Prez!!

    September 7, 2009 01:06 pm at 1:06 pm |
  10. Bill

    The right-wing nut jobs and parents that have railed against this speech should be absolutely ashamed of themselves! Their behavior is absolutely disgusting, especially given the fact that this speech contains ABSOLUTELY NO INDOCTRINATION MESSAGES WHATSOEVER!!!!! It is really sad that this country has become a place where such ignorant and hate-filled people are still listened to, despite what common sense says.

    September 7, 2009 01:06 pm at 1:06 pm |
  11. Melvin

    Excellent advice from our President. Thank you Mr. President. Many of us did not have a president like this growing up. Our lives would have turned up different.

    I don't understand why all these so called conservatives hate everything our President does or intends to do. I consider myself a conservative too, but I would not ever stand in the way anytime good.

    They are scared that our President would talk to their children, but they have no problem if the teachers they did not hire talk to their children or Sean Hanity talks to their children and they cannot stop Osama bin Laden talking to their children. Who would you like to talk to you child, a wise President or a hater?

    September 7, 2009 01:07 pm at 1:07 pm |
  12. Jorge en Texas

    Considering that a high percentage of school dropouts are from racial minorities, isn't it a happy coincidence that the President of the United States of America is himself a member of a racial minority who grew up in modest circumstances and has taken this opportunity to talk to them. Hopefully, they will listen and take his words to heart.

    September 7, 2009 01:07 pm at 1:07 pm |
  13. Chicago11

    So where's John Boehner's rebuttal speech? Certainly the GOP has demanded equal time to rebut the President.

    September 7, 2009 01:07 pm at 1:07 pm |
  14. jr

    The far right hysteria forced them into a tactical error. They made a big stink about Obama's speech before the speech writing was set in stone. Whether or not this is the original, or whether or not it used to have more words that sounded "leftist" once the right created the hysteria I knew that we would get what is here. A perfectly harmless urging for personal responsibility.

    It makes the far right look stupid. It makes them looked paniced over anything and nothing.

    I love Obama, this is just pragmatic talking. I just knew the moment this turned to a stink that this speech would be washed clean. It was to big an opportunity to make his critics look like they were talking out their rears. Though I am sure if there was an original it was harmless, but probably less carefully worded =)~

    September 7, 2009 01:08 pm at 1:08 pm |
  15. Erik in Real Pennsylvania

    Oh, it's the evil Lesson Plan after all! The speech isn't the problem, say the backpedaling wingnuts now. OK, go read the lesson plan and tell us what's wrogn with it.

    September 7, 2009 01:08 pm at 1:08 pm |
  16. ED

    The speech itself is OK - except that it's a little too "highbrow" to really "grab" kids. But, as usual, Obama didn't think this through from beginning to end. It's the self-serving (for Obama) lesson plans that upset parents (but now, of course, they'll be "white washed" after the fact). Obama and his tzars might learn to think before they speak - woud save everyone a lot of trouble.

    September 7, 2009 01:08 pm at 1:08 pm |
  17. Rich

    This is a discussion that parents should be having with there kids. All the time during the school year. Thanks Obama for doing it at least for the first time, maybe parents will catch on and those far right republicans that want to keep everybody dumb and stupid.

    September 7, 2009 01:09 pm at 1:09 pm |
  18. JD

    I hope they keep the lesson plans and teachers use it. This speech would be more effective if there is a discussion afterwards. Kids would be well served to sit, think and write about what they can do to help meet these goals.

    The drama that has people upset was taken out of context. The original plans that called for disussion of how Obama inspired them makes sense after reading the speech. The question wasn't about how great or inspiring Obama is – it was about what you feel motivated to do after listening to his ideas. (ex: How did Obama inspire you? Ans: to ask questions, work hard, help others, etc.) If that's socialism, then I'm all for it.

    September 7, 2009 01:09 pm at 1:09 pm |
  19. z

    Now, I am certain the criticism will turn to the associated lesson plan since the criticism about the speach proves unfounded. How unfortunate.

    September 7, 2009 01:09 pm at 1:09 pm |
  20. JoeC

    I'll tell you what the right-wingers don't like about this encourages the next generation to be responsible, to not blame others for their problems, to actually think for themselves; if a new generation embraces this advice, there won't be enough mindless cogs to drive the war/industrial machine and keep the elite in power.

    September 7, 2009 01:09 pm at 1:09 pm |
  21. Ken Silverbush

    How can anyone, regardless of party, object to the talk the President will be giving to students? Have we become so partisan in our politics that we don't recognize the power of words from a President...any President of this great inspire young people to be the best they can be? I fear the Repubs would have attacked Mother Teresa had she been a registered Dem.

    September 7, 2009 01:09 pm at 1:09 pm |
  22. KD in Houston

    Even FoxNews said:
    "...Obama avoids any partisan shots in his prepared remarks and instead encourages students to set goals for their education and to maintain focus in the face of life's challenges."

    Hopefully people will listen to their news source and realize they were ranting about nothing. The only thing they can be scared of now, is that kids will listen to this speech and act accordingly, because an educated populace just wouldn't vote bottom of the class graduates like McCain and Palin into office. I'm just saying.

    September 7, 2009 01:10 pm at 1:10 pm |
  23. Jim

    Thank you Mr. President for being a great example to our children.

    September 7, 2009 01:11 pm at 1:11 pm |
  24. Larry - Hazleton, pa

    Great presentation – let the right wing fools eat it. nothing that the Mr Obama says will ever change there minds. sick – sick people.

    September 7, 2009 01:11 pm at 1:11 pm |
  25. Joe from Virginia

    A very nice speech with a lot of fine messages for students (and even parents and teachers). And yet, as I read it, it was just a bit depressing that such a significant percentage of the country would be so wound up that they're afraid/angry of the President speaking to school kids at the start of the school year.

    We talk about the importance of values, of leadership, of setting examples. What's so bad about the President of the United States speaking directly to school kids about the importance of setting goals, getting an education, working hard, refusing to quit and pointing out that people with far more issues/disabilities have succeeded. That's not about politics or some democratic agenda. I feel so sad for the kids who's parents are so paranoid that they demonize the President on this issue before even looking at the text of the speech or even cutting him a bit of slack and assuming that the speech would be exactly what the President, Press Secretary and Secretary of Education said it would be about.

    September 7, 2009 01:11 pm at 1:11 pm |
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