Obama Welcomes America’s Kids Back to School

Obama offers lessons from his own high school years for today's schoolkids.

By Julianne Hing Sep 14, 2010

President Obama officially noted the end of summer today when he welcomed the nation’s schoolchildren back to their classrooms with his second annual back-to-school address. This year’s speech was delivered to an auditorium of squirmy and excited students from Philadelphia’s elite J.R. Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration Middle-High School.

Show up every day, work hard, and make tackling your schoolwork the fight of your life, were President Obama’s take home messages for America’s schoolkids. "Your future is in your hands," Obama said. "Your life is what you make of it. And nothing – absolutely nothing – is beyond your reach. So long as you’re willing to dream big. So long as you’re willing to work hard. So long as you’re willing to stay focused on your education."

Such is the refrain of Obama’s standard message to kids, his much-discussed bootstraps rhetoric was laced throughout his remarks. But this year Obama also acknowledged the strain of the recession on families and the way it’s robbed kids of slow and easy childhoods. Obama also recognized the burdens young people are forced to carry while their families are separated by military service abroad.

Obama said that the work of getting education reform was the responsibility of America’s adults, but that schoolkids should focus on their education alone. At the center of Obama’s education reform agenda is his goal that all of America’s schoolkids be prepared and able to enter college or kick off their careers by the year 2020.

But then Obama took the opportunity to look back at his own high school years, when he "was kind of a goof-off," acting "casual" about his future. He reflected on opportunities he almost let slip by before his mom gave him a hard talk that snapped him to attention.

He said:

You see, excelling in school or in life isn’t mainly about being smarter than everybody else. It’s about working harder than everybody else. Don’t avoid new challenges – seek them out, step out of your comfort zone, and don’t be afraid to ask for help; your teachers and family are there to guide you. Don’t feel discouraged or give up if you don’t succeed at something – try it again, and learn from your mistakes. Don’t feel threatened if your friends are doing well; be proud of them, and see what lessons you can draw from what they’re doing right.

His speech was full of positivity and encouragement, and refreshingly free of the coded politicking like in the remarks Obama gave this summer at UT Austin. But the speech was not without its critics. Obama’s been criticized for choosing to give his speech at a high-performing high school like Masterman, and for wasting instructional time by giving the talk during class hours. And for many of America’s kids of color, graduating from school takes much more than just hard work and discipline. All that aside, Obama’s pep talk was heartfelt and sincere, a rare specimen in the world of education reform and politics.