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. Louby

    What an intelligent and inspirational speech – it gave me goosebumps.

    I just wish all the haters could take a day off from the hate and see this for what it is – encouraging the children of this country to stay in school and strive to be the best they can be.

    I notice now that we've seen the text of the speech the haters are saying it's boring, or harping on about teleprompters – because they just can't bring themselves to admit that this is a good thing.

    September 7, 2009 01:31 pm at 1:31 pm |
  2. Mia

    Its amazing to me how ugly Americans have gotten, land of the free home of the brave, as long as it looks and talks like you right! Has any of the people who beat this to death acknowledged the fact that President Obama was a university lecturer and as such to maximize information, to bring home the issues stronger, there was a lesson plan to give it structure and to be used as a reference? How stupid do all of those people who were yelling like banshees look right now. What could he really have done to hurt your children and why as your President would you expect that he would?

    President Bush sent your children to their deaths in a war that is not your own ... yet your fear President Obama, wow!

    September 7, 2009 01:31 pm at 1:31 pm |
  3. Nav

    Bravo, Mr. President! This is a great speech. No kid in America should miss this speech. There is absolutely no political overtones in this speech and the whole controversy about this speech is just absurd. If someone, after reading the text of this speech, still doesn't want their kids watching this speech tomorrow, I just feel sorry for them and their kids who have to grow up in such a hateful family environment.

    September 7, 2009 01:32 pm at 1:32 pm |
  4. Tom Paine

    Oh boy, how inspiring. Wash your hands – now that's something the parents and teachers couldn't tell the kids themselves!

    So glad the Obamessiah decided to speak to the kids from Mt. Olympus on this major issue. No one would have been able to figure that one out without his intervention!

    Here's an idea – try leading the country. Leave parenting to parents.

    September 7, 2009 01:32 pm at 1:32 pm |
  5. Michael F.

    It's interesting that members of the far right are encouraging parents to keep their children home from school tomorrow. As someone that attended K – 12 and then 4 years of college, I can say with experience that it's the first day of school each year where friendships are solidified or renewed, and if parents keep their children out of school they're only doing them harm. I highly suggest parents read the context of the speech like I have, there's nothing in there about health care or socialism like Glen Beck, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, would have you believe. What's in there is a message that says, work hard, stay in school, and you will succeed, nothing more, nothing less. Of course maybe there are those that don't want our children to have a good education, after all the better an education someone has, the more likely they are to make an informed decision at the voting booth.

    September 7, 2009 01:32 pm at 1:32 pm |
  6. Joseph

    Brilliant speech Mr President!!!! No politics, and a great message not just for our children but also to everyone in America. This is what I learned from my parents and what every parent should be talking to with their children. Why are some people making such a big fuzz about something so clear and simple???

    September 7, 2009 01:33 pm at 1:33 pm |
  7. Palin 2012 - 2014 1/2

    Boy the sure were 'right' !!! That is socialist propoganda in its most vile form!!!! KEEP YOUR CHILDREN HOME!!!! WE surely don't want them to try or, worse, learn anything!!!!! (Then how could the Repubs brainwash them into good little fashists?)

    September 7, 2009 01:34 pm at 1:34 pm |
  8. big papa

    The Obama-hating whiners are upset that we have a Black man as President...

    ...plain and simple...

    ...YES, theese right wing complainers are racists!

    ...EVERYBODY knows it...

    September 7, 2009 01:34 pm at 1:34 pm |
  9. americacomingback

    This is clearly a politically oriented speech aimed at improving the standing of the Democratic party. President Obama knows that if the children are educated properly they will see the flaws and shortcomings of the Republican party and hence, strengthen the Democratic party. Nice try Mr. President, you can't fool us all!!! 🙂

    September 7, 2009 01:34 pm at 1:34 pm |
  10. Anne

    The republicans family trees surely have no branches if they can find fault with this speech.

    September 7, 2009 01:35 pm at 1:35 pm |
  11. JT from Missouri

    I really liked what I have just read and processed. I am a Freshman in College, and I like that President Obama is encouraging me and every other school child to stay in school and reach for the heavens. I think this speech could be useful to the parents who jumped to conclusions so early on. "Do not judge unless you want to be judged." Again, I really like this speech, and it gives me encouragment to go beyond the 4 or 5 year degree I had planed. President Obama, thank you very much for caring about us so much, may God bless you.

    September 7, 2009 01:36 pm at 1:36 pm |
  12. freda

    Wonderful speech! It is exactly as I knew it would be – very inspirational. President Obama is a great motivataor. If there are any complaints from the naysayers, then I guess the only thing we can do is pray for them.

    September 7, 2009 01:36 pm at 1:36 pm |
  13. No Hillary = No Obama

    And when was this revised? Obama exploits his popularity so he can exploit childlren as a means to exploit his political agenda. What we have here is a contrivance.

    September 7, 2009 01:37 pm at 1:37 pm |
  14. Johnny Neptune

    I'm going to ask a real question here, "Is this about politics or about race"

    I haven't heard nor did I see any black parents opposing this speech. Every time I look at the news, all I see is angry southern and rural white people yelling and screaming at anything Obama does, from the Tea Party's to the Health Care town hall meetings. All I hear is "Take Our Country Back" from whom? Where did it go and who took it in the first place?

    As far as I'm concerned, I could really care less if southern and rural white folks don't want there children to listen to his speech because it's not meant for their ears anyway, it's meant for all of the minority children who identify with or has some type of commonality with Obama.

    September 7, 2009 01:38 pm at 1:38 pm |
  15. Patty from Pennsylvania

    For the very few who complained that the issue raised was with the lesson plans I would point out that they were developed as a guide for teachers. They were never mandated or required at any time. In fact, even viewing the speech was never mandated.

    September 7, 2009 01:38 pm at 1:38 pm |
  16. littlelu

    The objection of the speech by the right-wing loonies is not about the speech itself at all. It's about the fact that the President is giving the speech. The right-wing loonies would rather harbor their hate and malcontent before they would like for their children to feel positive about their President. It doesn't matter what President Obama does.. he could be doing the best job in the whole entire World and they would still be slewing hate-spewed rhetoric towards him.. That's just the facts folks. We're going to be hearing them screaming and yelling the whole entire time Pres. Obama is in office. Even when they aren't in control, they want to be in control. They cannot stand to see anyone else in charge of this country other than their greed and hate-inspired ilk. Very very sad!

    September 7, 2009 01:39 pm at 1:39 pm |
  17. jeff - Texas

    He is cutting his own parties throat. If they become educated then they all become republicans..... That is really smart

    September 7, 2009 01:39 pm at 1:39 pm |
  18. MJ

    Interesting ... Obama is allowed to say "GOD BLESS". Why can't our students, teachers, and their administration do the same?

    September 7, 2009 01:40 pm at 1:40 pm |
  19. Montaz Chowdhury

    Excellent speech! Even though it's not a speech from a Canadian Prime minister, I would suggest that all the Canadian school should telecast it. My son (jsixth grader) read the speech and he liked it very much.

    September 7, 2009 01:41 pm at 1:41 pm |
  20. Sally Saffer

    What many Republicans DON'T want , in addition to having a black president, is having a highly respected, very successful, well-to-do black president who encourages black children to better themselves. I lived in NY State for 2/3 of my life and in atlanta for the last 1/3, and have never seen such unChrist-like behavior from so many people who consider themselves religious. This attiude of hate has to be covering up lives based on a psychology of fear, "If I allow you to GET something, then I will LOSE something," rather than from a sense of abundance, "God has given us enough for everyone."

    I live in the state of Georgia and I am ashamed of the selfishness and ignorance of our state and federal legislators. It wasn't as obvious until Barack Obama became our president. Until Obama won the hearts and minds of so many Americans, I had no idea so much bigotry and prejudice still existed anywhere in the U.S.A.

    September 7, 2009 01:41 pm at 1:41 pm |
  21. Jon Regent

    The real reason conservatives don't like this speech:

    Because it's easier to succeed when everyone else fails.

    September 7, 2009 01:41 pm at 1:41 pm |
  22. Ron Jones

    Simple and factual!! Does not need much analysis to tell it's exactly what our (USA) youth need to hear. Hope, prosperity and real life facts are present. Absence is political, prejudices, racism, sexism, and hatered comments. Enough good people of America, lets move forward.

    September 7, 2009 01:41 pm at 1:41 pm |
  23. Mike, Syracuse, NY

    Wonder what the speech would have said if it weren't for the flap. I think the lesson plans say a lot. Wonder if Jazmin was even here legally.

    September 7, 2009 01:41 pm at 1:41 pm |
  24. Sara

    Thank-you Mr. President for a fabulous welcome back to school.

    September 7, 2009 01:41 pm at 1:41 pm |
  25. Kirk

    Republicans are kicking up a fuss about this??????? Morons, one and all!!!!

    September 7, 2009 01:42 pm at 1:42 pm |
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