Obama tells students to take responsibility
Posted September 8, 2009 3:19 a.m. EDT
Updated October 17, 2011 10:16 a.m. EDT
WASHINGTON — Take responsibility for your education. Go to class and listen. Don't let failures define you.
That's the advice President Barack Obama gave schoolchildren Tuesday in a speech that drew fire even before he delivered it.
"We need every single one of you to develop your talents, skills and intellect so you can help solve our most difficult problems," Obama said. "If you don't do that – if you quit on school – you're not just quitting on yourself, you're quitting on your country."
The president delivered the talk at Wakefield High School in Arlington, Va., a Washington suburb. The speech was broadcast live on C-SPAN and on the White House Web site.
At Southern High School in Durham, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson watched and discussed the speech with students. Other cabinet members held similar events across the country.
"Education is an equalizer. It starts each and every one of you in the same place," Jackson told the Southern High students.
A New Orleans native who earned a degree in engineering, she said she hoped to set an example for some of the students.
"If I'm lucky, I'll inspire a couple of them to say, 'Hey, that could be me some day,'" Jackson said.
She said she picked Southern High to watch the speech because of its engineering focus, including a "green club."
"The technologies of tomorrow – the green technologies – require that these kids invest in themselves now," she said.
Some students said they were impressed by their visitor.
"I never thought in a million years that small Southern, (which) has such a bad reputation, would get such a big, influential person," senior Kristen Watkins said.
Obama told the students that all the work of parents, educators and others won't matter "unless you show up to those schools, pay attention to those teachers."
His talk raised the ire of several conservative organizations and individuals, who accused him of trying to pitch his arguments too aggressively in a local-education setting. White House officials, including Education Secretary Arne Duncan, called the allegations "silly."
Obama made no reference in his speech to the uproar surrounding the talk. Nor did he make an appeal for support for tough causes like his health care overhaul plan. He used the talk to tell kids about his at-times clumsy ways as a child and to urge them to set goals and work hard to achieve them.
"At the end of the day, we can have the most dedicated teachers, the most supportive parents and the best schools in the world," Obama said. "And none of it will matter unless all of you fulfill your responsibilities."
Watkins and fellow Southern High senior Tiffany Carson said students needed to hear the president's message.
"I feel like a lot of people don't take education as seriously as they should," Carson said. "I wanted to cry for a moment (during the speech) because I feel like I am in history."
"It was very inspirational, exactly what we need just to get things started," Watkins said. "I really just need to push hard and go for the top."
Some conservatives called on schools and parents to boycott the address.
Wake County allowed individual schools to decide whether to show the speech to students. The school district received about 40 complaints about the speech, spokesman Michael Evans said.
Some schools allowed parents to opt out of the activity and have their children do something else while the speech was broadcast, while others used an opt-in approach with parents sending letters to schools asking that their children be allowed to see the speech, Evans said.
All schools in the Orange County and Chapel Hill-Carrboro school districts showed the speech, and the districts received few complaints, officials said. Many Durham County schools also showed it without complaint, officials said.
Cumberland County Schools taped the speech because testing was already scheduled during that time, and officials said principals have the option to play the recording for students on Thursday.
Jackson said parents who read the text of the speech, which the White House released Monday, or listened to it themselves likely realized quickly that there was nothing controversial to the president's message.
"I think, as people are reading it ... they're saying to themselves, 'What was the controversy after all?'" she said. "The president of our country wants to speak to our kids in public schools and say, 'Listen, work hard. Stay in school. Set goals for yourselves.' There's nothing political about that."
Duncan's department also took heat for proposed lesson plans distributed to accompany the speech.
The education secretary acknowledged that a section about writing to the president on how students could help him meet education goals was poorly worded and was changed.
Obama left the students with some words of encouragement.
"I expect great things from each of you," he said. "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."