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. Gail P

    Oohh, scary speech. I'll bet the Republicans will find something 'socialistic" about this too. Great speech.

    September 7, 2009 01:22 pm at 1:22 pm |
  2. Unnecessary Drama

    An inspirational speech for our kids from an intelligent and loving father, as MANY presidents have done in the past. Plain and simple.

    The GOP followers and their so-called "leaders" (Greer, Pawlenty, Crist, etc.) joining the lunacy against this educational message should be ashamed of themselves. Then again, they only confirm why many Americans have left the fringe group my former Republican Party has unbelievably become.

    September 7, 2009 01:23 pm at 1:23 pm |
  3. Jacob

    Thank you, Mr. President!

    There must be a lot of embarrassed Republicans this morning...

    September 7, 2009 01:24 pm at 1:24 pm |
  4. E. Cartier Creveling

    People can be frightening, can't they? I'm not sure the speech will actually inspire anybody, but that's only because I haven't heard President Obama deliver it yet. It certainly is not the huge propaganda message that enemies of the president would have us believe.

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

    gosh! that was the worst job of socialist indoctrination and brainwashing i ever read!

    maybe once again, the right wing hysterics have put their mouths in gear before their brains were up to speed? but what can you expect from a group who is the very embodiment of lack of education and critical thinking skills?

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

    Yo, REPUBS I know you would rather hear a dumb rich white guy read my pet goat to your children while the towers fell. Guys get a grip, we all know you are having problems with a very smart (non-white) man as the PREZ. I know you would rather hear BUSH brag about being a C student. Get over it. Its going to be along (8) years for you!

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

    After hearing all the hoopla regarding our President speaking to the children of this nation, and witnessing the hatred; I now am a loyal Democrat! President Obama, thank you for caring for this nation and its people! Thank you for taking the time to talk to our children! Thank you for putting money back into our pockets! Thank you for risking your life for us, we will forever be grateful! Please don't back down to these right wing fanatics! We support you and are out here defending you and supporting you to the best of our ability!

    Now to all you radical wing nuts, you have read the speech, now back off. You have absolutely made total fools of yourself by acting so childish and illogical. If the children need to be saved, it would have to be from controlling parents such as yourself! You people are acting downright barbaric; last I checked this is the 21st century!

    September 7, 2009 01:25 pm at 1:25 pm |
  8. Amy, Kazoo

    am I the only parent who WANTS my kids to be "brainwashed" to stay in school? lol A speech about personal accountability. For shame! Seems to me that most parents and politicians these days could use a reminder.

    September 7, 2009 01:26 pm at 1:26 pm |
  9. Charlene Portney

    That was a lovely speech. The media blitzes and the republicans that started them against this speech and the President's health care programs should be ashamed of themselves and so should the people that were led like cattle again our President, Grow up people, if we don't support our President we will all be in much worse shape than we are now. At least he is trying to make things better but those "other people" won't let him.

    September 7, 2009 01:26 pm at 1:26 pm |
  10. Anonymous

    Two former Presidents both Republicans spoke to school children when our daughter was in school. We felt honored they took the time to speak to school children. And by the way we are not Republicans. I think the complaining about anything our President does is another example of the hate and bitterness we have observed since President Obama was sworn in. We were taught by our parents to respect our President. When I was growing up in the 50's my parents always listened to any speech the President had for the nation, first by radio, then by tv when we got one in the late 50's. We are losing a group of young people that know nothing about our history. I was getting my hair cut last week and a young lady said I did not know President Kennedy was related to Robert Kennedy and Ted Kennedy. I don't worry about terrorists from other countries anymore, but I do worry about Americans that are full of hate, anger, and bitterness.

    September 7, 2009 01:26 pm at 1:26 pm |
  11. Lori laughs at the GOP daily! Despite their race baiting politics they still trail the Dems!!!

    I am proud that this man is our President! I am disgusted at those racists parents crying and wailing that the black boogeyman President was going to speak to their children. And I never saw a problem with a lesson plan accompanying his speech. The President just wanted the children to be engaged in the process. But yet again, education and Republicans don't mix well.

    For the first time in my adult life, I am officially ashamed that Republicans are from the United States of America!

    September 7, 2009 01:26 pm at 1:26 pm |
  12. Dan, TX

    For all the backtracking conservatives who say it isn't the speech it is the lesson plan. The plan was all along, to write about what the student would do to achieve and by doing that help the president and America.

    Unfortunately, it was worded such that wackos looking to twist anything to look bad could find something.

    You know those death panels that don't exist but republicans said existed? The "indoctrination" they warned you about is the same thing. A lie. The republicans are liars, don't you get it? They are lying to you.

    They say improving the health insurance system is bad for you. There are death panels to kill you. Don't you think improving the health care system is a good thing? You believe that the best minds in America are unable to improve our health care system? You think the best minds in America can't achieve greatness for our country?

    Republicans are very afraid of everything. Republicans need to learn about entrepreneurship and taking risks to achieve rewards. Don't be afraid.

    September 7, 2009 01:27 pm at 1:27 pm |
  13. Keith

    On a more serious note, I find it funny every time I hear something like, "I support the president, but I don't think it's right to ask kids how they can help the president." Does anyone else hear a contradiction there?

    If it was something along the lines of "Ask kids how they can help the president achieve X policy goal," then fine. But it's not. It's just a stupid little thing for kids to do so they can feel like they're an active member of our country, what a terrible thing that would be. Sure, maybe some of the older students will think it's stupid or boring, but if that were the case, it probably wouldn't be too much of a change from what students think about school anyways. I'm sure there would be plenty of perfectly innocent responses along the lines of "I promise to do well in school so I can contribute to our country blah blah blah..."

    Maybe it was worded poorly, so be it. It just seems like all of the criticism of this event has hinged on this one poor wording choice. Give the man a break! At least he didn't ask the kids not to "misunderestimate" their potential! Or help achieve new innovative technologies related to "new-kya-ler" power.

    September 7, 2009 01:27 pm at 1:27 pm |
  14. Ron Mosher

    What an awesome speech! We should all be thanking the president for taking the time to do this. The only reason conservatives are against this speech is that it is coming from a black man. I pity their children for having to endure the constant hate they are around.

    September 7, 2009 01:28 pm at 1:28 pm |
  15. jdlt

    Wow sounds like exerpts from Fidel or Chavez's speeches to their school children in their countries. Come on K-6 having the weight of the country placed on their teeny little shoulders. They are trying to read, trying to write, do math, and trying to socialize and get through puberty with so many other social stressors. Sorry his Education Director should have made several speeches to be age appropriate for different levels.Oh yea and how about we are all proud to be in the best country in the world aleady and they are a part of it thanks to their parents and grandparents. Again with the this country can be, not is, still no pride for the red white and blue already.

    September 7, 2009 01:29 pm at 1:29 pm |
  16. Nini

    CNN I watched how your report was trying to say that conservatives rushed to judgment. Well please inform your reports that people and not only conservatives have problem with what came next and that was the homework and not the speech.

    Forgive us for being concern when Mr. President has surround himself with Marxist and communist that hate America, if you are not concern you are an idiot.

    September 7, 2009 01:29 pm at 1:29 pm |
  17. Carol

    Wow! I'm bowled over. The propaganda. LOL. No the Republicans won't feel foolish. They are too brain washed.
    Now they will harp on the lesson plan. Using the words "to help President Obama" to me equals help America. After all he is our President. Ideas that would help him would help America. It's just spliting hairs. Don't they have anything useful to do? NOT! Anyone with half a brain can see that this is all about that problem they have with pigmentation. Get over it, President Obama cares about our country. Instead of spreading hate, be useful and help our wonderful President.
    Stop working AGAINST America.

    September 7, 2009 01:29 pm at 1:29 pm |
  18. Big Ed

    Hey, GOP! Feeling a little stupid right about now? You should!

    September 7, 2009 01:30 pm at 1:30 pm |
  19. Phil Estelle, Jr.

    I agree the speech as written is good, but To all those who blindly follow....With out our voices of opposition, the lesson plan would not have been changed, the text of the speech would not have been released before hand. What we expect from our President is Honesty and Openness, With out our voice of opposition, we would have had neither!
    I also want to point out that the Press carried both Bush's and Regan's speeches Live, The schools were not forced or given lesson plans ahead of time. This still is a giant leap for a President to take control of the classroom.

    September 7, 2009 01:30 pm at 1:30 pm |
  20. So....Presidents are not role models

    CheneyBush taught us all one thing

    Presidents are not role models for children......


    September 7, 2009 01:30 pm at 1:30 pm |
  21. jazz in mich.

    I agree that this is a great speech. But let us make one thing clear. The republicans had no fear of the words in the speech. Indeed, they just used this as another opportunity to degrade the President. Every little knockdown, in their minds, means they will be elevated. I can't wait until 2010 when they are voted out of office so they can stop acting like two year old spoiled brats.. The so-called preachers making those inflammatory statements against the President will reap what they sow.

    September 7, 2009 01:30 pm at 1:30 pm |
  22. MishaJohn

    The media should learn from this episode: the GOP's attacks on President Obama are devoid of substance or merit. They are the very basest form of scum-scraping partisanship and they should be covered as such by respectable new organizations. Doing otherwise simply plays into the GOP's hands and does their dirty work for them.

    The media now needs to report on this: "Republicans oppose staying in school, personal responsibility, doing homework."

    September 7, 2009 01:30 pm at 1:30 pm |
  23. Bille D.

    My child will be hear the speech and we will also discuss it after school. Excellent speech. Way to go President Obama!

    September 7, 2009 01:30 pm at 1:30 pm |
  24. Steve

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

    September 7, 2009 01:31 pm at 1:31 pm |
  25. Shoma

    More validation that I did the right thing in voting for President Obama. He's speaking as a parent and a President. The message is clear - stay in school and work hard to make something of yourself. That is great for you and great for the country.

    Somebody has to tell the children what is expected of them - it is clear a lot of parents aren't doing their job.

    September 7, 2009 01:31 pm at 1:31 pm |
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