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. Stacey

    Aha! The "Right" was right again! What gives this President the right to to force children to listen to such evil and subversive ideas! It's my right as a parent to decide if I want my child to do well in school. How dare he say that my child must take responsibility for his own education and success! How unamerican! We expect something for nothing, we blame our failures on others and we reject change out of fear and ignorance! That's the American way! We must all band together and send a message to this evil man! We will rise up and have Education Tea Parties to express our righteous wrath! We can tear up homework, burn text books and hand out free game stations to children who skip school to attend! That will teach him not to inspire our children!

    September 7, 2009 01:12 pm at 1:12 pm |
  2. Perusing-through

    Can any of you John King Conservatives explain to me why the false accusations about the speech being about Socialist-Nazi indoctrination. I read the speech twice and I'm not seeing those lie. This is proof the conservative wingnuts have lost their minds!

    September 7, 2009 01:12 pm at 1:12 pm |
  3. GENE

    Here is another case of opponents of the President making incorrect judgements about the contents of his speech before they even had a chance to read it. If there is something in his comments that any parent could object to, I fail to see it. Hatred blinds people to reality. The hatred some people have for the President is obvious by their words and actions. However, people need to separate their personal feelings about the President from the policies he espouses. Any fair minded person cannot disagree with every utterance the President makes. There is always more common ground among people ideas than there are differences

    September 7, 2009 01:12 pm at 1:12 pm |
  4. Nate S

    It's funny that the same lunatic right-wingers who claim that this is indoctrination – specifically the lesson plan – cry foul when the Pledge of Allegiance isn't repeated every day. Give me a break. Education is indoctrination – about how to live in the society you're raised in. Give it up.

    September 7, 2009 01:13 pm at 1:13 pm |
  5. American pride

    Good job, Mr. President! I'm proud to be an educator, a parent, and an American. Thank you for reminding all of us what is important, and not trying to tell us what to be afraid of.

    September 7, 2009 01:13 pm at 1:13 pm |
  6. leah in florida

    So what's the problem here? Looks very similar to the speeches HW Bush and Reagan delivered to school children. The difference? A Democrat is making the speech.

    Republicans are resorting to anything and everything to distort anything this president does. They are acting like terrorists against the United States' administration!!

    I don't see how any reasonable human being can identify as a Republican. These are truly absurd hateful extremists. Obama won the election and the Republicans are enraged!

    To my fellow Americans... Don't let these extremists dictate our country's agenda!

    September 7, 2009 01:14 pm at 1:14 pm |
  7. Dan, TX

    I think he should have had different speeches for different grade levels. Probably k-2nd grade didn't benefit much from this at all. Maybe they even became confuse by it. It is targeted to jr High to High School.

    Other than that, it is ok. Certainly nothing to complain about, but he should have called out the young kids and gave them a task in simpler terms.

    Yes, Obama's the best president we've had in decades, but he's not perfect.

    September 7, 2009 01:14 pm at 1:14 pm |
  8. Randall Scasny

    I read the speech text. I really don't understand what all the uproar about the speech was last week. Sounds like a lot of good advice. I work with job seekers who don't have a lot of job skills and are having a hard time now so I appreciate the President taking some time out of his day and giving a little good advice to kids. Also, I heard that Presidents Reagan, Bush 1 and Bush 2 talked to school kids. So, what's the problem?

    September 7, 2009 01:15 pm at 1:15 pm |
  9. eolufemi

    anybody willing to apologize to not only the president but our nation's children?

    September 7, 2009 01:15 pm at 1:15 pm |

    I wish i had people in my life that said stuff like that. I'm 26 and since i don't have the kind of parents that encourage broadening my horizons, i had to rely on friends, teachers, and cousins. Reading Obama's words made me feel good. I hope they do the same for the kids!

    September 7, 2009 01:16 pm at 1:16 pm |
  11. deadbeatJONES

    Oh no! Cover your ears! Run and hide! The President is speaking to our children! The world is coming to an end! He talked about a kid with brain must be a conspiracy! He talked about Michael Jordan...he must be pushing a hidden agenda! Where's my tin foil hat?!?! Hahahahahahaha.

    September 7, 2009 01:17 pm at 1:17 pm |
  12. Rachel

    GOP does not benefit from an educated electorate. There disdain for the President motivating the youth to work hard, stay in school and individual responsibility seems at odds with the conservatives view of what 'their' country should be about.

    They are arguing about a lesson plan that suggested children send ideas to help the President increase high school graduation rates. These people are useless.

    September 7, 2009 01:17 pm at 1:17 pm |
  13. Janet from California

    Wow! Right on, Mr. President!

    September 7, 2009 01:18 pm at 1:18 pm |
  14. Wholigan Hog

    Great speech. If the nay-sayers compain about this one they have no right having children at all.

    September 7, 2009 01:18 pm at 1:18 pm |
  15. DJ

    Growing up in America, I do not remember such hatred and anger dividing the country and tearing it down. Even when people disagree with policies, they still expressed support and came together as a country. Yes, even the Senate and the House would unite after vigorous debating to lead the country as a unit. The extreme venting of poisonous hatred and venomous anger tears us apart and serves no purpose except to release the pressure of fear from those who continue to wave their fists in the air even after the debates are settles. The elected officials who continue to add fuel to the bonfire of fear fail to provide mature leadership and fan the fear that divides.. American is above all of this illness. We can disagree to disagree and still unite to add strength to our leadership and hope to our children and the future. God bless America.

    September 7, 2009 01:19 pm at 1:19 pm |
  16. tim

    Guess what? If he HAD released a lesson plan asking kids to write how they can support him, I'd have no problem with that. Kids should look up to the president. They should admire him, hope he succeeds and help him where they can.

    This is the call to action Kennedy made decades ago. It's the basis of the peace corps and many of our great social programs. The president SHOULD inspire, and kids can start early thinking about how they can help America (he is the leader of it and the symbol, after all). It used to be patriotism; nor Republicans call it politics.

    Politics can be left to adults. Idolizing your president is not indoctrination. When I was 9, I thought Reagan was the greatest president ever ... but since I turned 18, I have not voted for a Republican presidential candidate once.

    When you grow up, if your parents did a good job and didn't do the indoctrinating themselves, you decide for yourself.

    September 7, 2009 01:19 pm at 1:19 pm |
  17. steve

    The Republican party expresses disappointment on the president's call for excellence among American school children.
    They would prefer this kids to boycott school and play video game and listen to Glenn- Rush for a full dose of hate speech and bigotry.
    Way to go GOP.
    Your party is now a national disgrace.

    September 7, 2009 01:19 pm at 1:19 pm |
  18. tabbitha rae

    Now that the speech is out and we can see that it is just what the White House said it would be, a speech encouraging kids to study hard, the wing-nuts are claiming they had no objections to the speech, just the lesson plan. As if we won't remember that just yesterday, parents were threatening to keep their kids home to protect them from the speech. If it were just the lesson plan they objected to, they would have said, let our kids hear the speech, just don't use the lesson plan. In fact, if it were just the lesson plan, the objections would have died down when the lesson plan was changed.

    September 7, 2009 01:19 pm at 1:19 pm |
  19. Joe in NJ

    The age group this is aimed at is too broad. My niece starts kindergarten tomorrow and most of this will probably go over her head. At this point she doesn't understand the concept of staying in school. It's just something she knows she has to do and school will be a part of her everyday life. I also like the part where Obama says that if you don't feel well, stay home. I can see it now – "Mommy, I don't feel well. The President said I should stay home."

    September 7, 2009 01:19 pm at 1:19 pm |
  20. Steve

    Marxist..Socialist????!!!!!!!! Maybe that idiot who is the head of the Forida GOP can have someone read it to him....

    September 7, 2009 01:19 pm at 1:19 pm |
  21. Little Change from Obama - More of the same

    Sure. The speech looks fine now. What did it look like before all the uproar? What about the lesson plans that were changed?

    The point is – a lot of people do not trust this administration. And why should we when the words coming out of Obama's mouth never seem to match up with the actions that are being taken?

    Better safe han sorry. This administration has an agenda that most of us DO NOT WANT!

    September 7, 2009 01:20 pm at 1:20 pm |
  22. Jan

    For those of you who only listen to CNN and other mainstream, left-wing, liberal media outlets . . . the concern was no over Obama's speech as it was HIS LESSON PLANS. As a former teacher, I can tell you that Obama's lesson plans were ABSOLUTELY POLITICALLY SLANTED. All presidents have an agenda, i.e., a platform of initiatives they want to accomplish, etc. That having been said, Obama's lesson plans involved students writing about "WHAT THEY CAN DO TO HELP THE PRESIDENT." From get-go, I thought the "better" lesson plan would have been to have asked students WHEY THEY COULD DO TO HELP THEIR COUNTRY, THEIR COMMUNITY, AND/OR THEIR SCHOOL. Don't be so quick to bash those of us who were concerned about Obama's Lesson Plans. His original Lesson Plans DID DRIVE AN AGENDA - PURE AND SIMPLE.

    September 7, 2009 01:21 pm at 1:21 pm |
  23. Ronald & Betsy Nott

    We have read your comments to students and we have found nothing wrong with them. In fact, we both feel that more people should be more encouraging to our youtth's responsibility to our country. We are of the generation that heard John Kennedy's inauguration speech asking for more people participation in our country. Those who are in disagreement with your comments to our students must be of a generation that just do not care for themselves,others, and most importantly their nation.

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

    Very good since he changed his game plan. I wonder who rewrote the speech for him? Believe, change is good

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

    There's nothing wrong with a President speaking to kids on the first day of school provided he keeps politics out of it. Obama's speech wasnt the problem. It was the lesson plan they pulled that had the kids writing a letter asking "what they could do to help President Obama. What kind of mindset does the Obama administration have to put out something like that?

    September 7, 2009 01:22 pm at 1:22 pm |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13