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. David Wiener

    The speech is encouraging children to think critically, examine the facts before they make a decision, and use this information as the basis for making their decisions. No wonder right wingers and fundies everywhere are angered. People thinking for themselves? Whats next, a rational basis for morality? O, the horror.

    September 7, 2009 01:42 pm at 1:42 pm |
  2. The speech or the lesson plan?

    Ok, so some are saying "it's the lesson plan not the speech that we were against", others are saying that K-4 will not understand the speech, and some are now saying that the speech is too long.

    hmmm..people are really looking for any reason to criticize the president.

    Sounds like racists are wanting an excuse to complain.

    September 7, 2009 01:43 pm at 1:43 pm |
  3. ex-republican

    this women in co is apsolutely idiot. how about our children speak more languages so they can catch-up with the world

    September 7, 2009 01:43 pm at 1:43 pm |
  4. JayG

    I'm a Republican and see nothing wrong with this speech. However, I'm sure it was revised over and over from his original brainwashing paper. You liberals hate it whenever Obama is criticized but never failed to attack Bush at every corner. Maybe Obama should have told the children about how he didnt have enough faith in the Armed forces of America to win the war in Iraq so he wanted all troops out immediatley because it was a losing battle, and how they should have more faith than he did.

    September 7, 2009 01:43 pm at 1:43 pm |
  5. Len in Washington

    You know, what the "Screamers, Ranters and Ravers" don't understand is that they ARE in the Minority concerning this President.

    Good words, Mr. President. Thankyou.

    September 7, 2009 01:43 pm at 1:43 pm |
  6. mk

    I am so proud of this President. He will keep on trying to do the next right thing and all his haters will fall all over themselves just to throw a stone.

    September 7, 2009 01:46 pm at 1:46 pm |
  7. Monic

    I'm a high school student and my parents told me not to listen to the President. Therefore I will drop out of school and become a burden to this country. If all of us who oppose everything this President says, will do what I do, then we'll show them!!!!

    September 7, 2009 01:46 pm at 1:46 pm |
  8. cdeh

    Seems to me I remember hearing a similar inspirational speech from Ronald Reagan and George Bush I (yes I'm that old). What a worrisome time this is, that political bashing trumps a inspirational speech from the President! GOP and faux media you should be ashamed of yourselves. I'm continue to be glad I quit the Republican party and voted for Obama!

    September 7, 2009 01:46 pm at 1:46 pm |
  9. Gloria

    What a wonderful speech. Thank you, Mr. President. And now, shut up conservatives.

    September 7, 2009 01:47 pm at 1:47 pm |
  10. Paul Aldama

    It's unbelievable that some people would be fearful of a "blac"k president talking to there kids about staying in school and working hard to achieve there dreams. Where were these people when all the other "white" presidents spoke to thier children? Thank you Mr. President for going on with your speach and tolerating all the negative talk from all those racist individuals.

    September 7, 2009 01:47 pm at 1:47 pm |
  11. bunky

    Great and inspiring ! A very GOOD idea.

    We have to stand up and defend against this constant barrage of
    nonsensical and fact-free noise sprewed out by a tiny and loud racist pocket of the population. They're just incensed that they lost the election.

    September 7, 2009 01:47 pm at 1:47 pm |
  12. Lorna

    Thoughtful, insightful, caring, and encouraging. God forbid children should be exposed to these kinds of messages. The lunatic fringe who object to this are themselves objectionable. There are those who are unreachable and therefore unteachable. It wouldn't matter what our President did or said...they are going to find fault with him. Thank you President Obama for all you are doing to lift up and carry thru with what is best for this country. Oh last thing...didn't Bill O'Reilly, the conservatives guru, just do a story last month in "Parade" titled something like..."What children can learn from Barack Obama"? What a bunch of hypocrites.

    September 7, 2009 01:48 pm at 1:48 pm |
  13. Bill

    Is it 2010 Yet? Where do you dig up the crap your talking about? The speech is fine...the lesson plan was corrected...but you are still an idiot!

    September 7, 2009 01:48 pm at 1:48 pm |
  14. Mwila Chansa

    The Republican's worst enemy is an educated black man and woman. With this message from the President all the children are moving on. And that upsets those who would rather have some kids head for jail while their kids head for the Whitehouse. That was their problem. Sorry!

    The sun is shining. America wake up and smell the coffee.

    Freedom has come to America and not even Greer from Florida can stop it. Thank you God.

    I am so excited because my daughter went to Wakefield. I wish my daughter was there now. What a moment this is for the kids.

    God Bless America, Obama and his team.

    September 7, 2009 01:49 pm at 1:49 pm |
  15. once upon a horse

    Comon don't tell me you people are going to FALL for this!! We have to wait and see how Rush, Sean, and Glenn spin this into the EVIL speech that it really is before we can accept that the president wasn't planning to turn all our kids into Democrats with open minded acceptence of other people with different backgrounds.

    September 7, 2009 01:49 pm at 1:49 pm |
  16. Tom

    Controversy is here...

    Preparatory materials asking students to 'write letters to themselves about how they can help the president'. That crosses the line, they knew it, they retracted it. I applaud them for realizing the mistake.

    They knew the speech had to be squeaky clean. Pretty much the same speech George Bush gave them back in 2001. Only now it's inspiring and brilliant.

    September 7, 2009 01:49 pm at 1:49 pm |
  17. New Age Democrat

    This speech is a complete waste of time and taxpayers money. I honestly do not see any educational value in it whatsoever.

    September 7, 2009 01:49 pm at 1:49 pm |
  18. Coherent1

    Okay, here's an opportunity to compare the political ploys involved with the opposition's game plan. See how they used a "false-focus" of indoctrinating children with a socialist agenda, to stir up the base and create protest? See how the people were afraid and not allowing their children to attend school? Now, take a look at the health care debate. The false-focus is the rationing of health care, the death panel's, and taking away from medicare. All of which was purposefully injected to cover the real reasons why they're against the public option; protection of the insurance companies, investors, and the bottom line. But don't feel stupid. I encourage you to educate yourselves and learn from these mistakes, so that we can make better decisions for ourselves and as a country. You know, like the president is asking of our children.

    September 7, 2009 01:50 pm at 1:50 pm |
  19. J

    That lady from Colorado "Shanneen Barron" should go back to school and learn a things or two.

    Talked about "thinking backward"

    September 7, 2009 01:50 pm at 1:50 pm |
  20. nola

    Today I cried – As I was reading President Obama's speech for all the school children in this country – I cried – because this was one great speech to help our students to excel – it is a speech that parents, grandparents and other family members can add to that will encourage their child, children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephew to excel in what ever they want to achieve in life.

    Today I cried because a parent, like millions of you, wants not only his children to excel but all the million of school age children in this country. I cried because for the past couple of days this man has been crucified unfairly by the rightwingers and the Repub because they Don't Want all the Children in this Country to Be All They Can Be

    Great Speech – My Family will be listening –

    September 7, 2009 01:50 pm at 1:50 pm |
  21. vic nashville , Tn

    Obama is back on track with more energy

    He will pass the health care reform

    He will smash GOP

    He is back

    Go Obama

    September 7, 2009 01:50 pm at 1:50 pm |
  22. Daniel

    Oh, this is such socialist speak. Please!!!!!!

    Here is our president working to encourage our schoolchildren who are lagging behind other countries and this speech is what got everyone riled up.

    I blame the Limbaughs, Hannity's, and all the idiots over at FOX News that seem to need an education in clear, logical, and rational thinking.

    I am getting really sick and tired of right-wing whackos and their fear of socialism clouding any discussion of the problems that our country faces.

    September 7, 2009 01:52 pm at 1:52 pm |
  23. dave

    I see much was removed like What can you do for President Obama, etc. after there were complaints. This speech was ok but the original was pure crap, you only here what CNN wants you to here.

    September 7, 2009 01:52 pm at 1:52 pm |
  24. Greg

    As a Canadian neighbour, you should be very proud of your leader, America.
    Well done! Well said!

    September 7, 2009 01:53 pm at 1:53 pm |
  25. Garrett

    I'm waiting for the Republican "reaction" to this speech...and the bellows of "unpatriotic"...etc. Seriously, they are acting like children.

    September 7, 2009 01:53 pm at 1:53 pm |
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