As a person who works in a high school, and as a member of the American public, I really looked forward to Obama's Address to Students yesterday. I know from my day-to-day experience that many students lack the drive and the motivation to give it their all and do well in school. How great it is, I thought to myself, that our president is going to talk to students about this school year.
I arrived at school yesterday to a virtual boatload of emails from teachers, many voicing their opinions that this address should not be shown in their classrooms. Several parents had apparently called in and stated that their children were not to watch the address. Teachers who felt uncomfortable showing the address planned alternate activities for students to get away from the television.
I just...didn't understand. I was so happy to read an email sent by the head of our counseling apartment, which I will copy and paste here:
From my understanding, there is no specific party-line being represented in this 18 minute speech that focuses on the responsibility of students to make good educational choices, to study hard, to have goals, etc. This is our collective President of the United States speaking. A person who should have been one of our educationally "at risk" students given his socio-economic background, being raised by multiple generations in his family, and being a minority (black male). He is a living example of what we hope all of our students strive for in terms of education. I am confused by the public outrage over this speech. However, I also believe students should have a "choice" as to whether to watch this or not. Having said that, I believe this speech will be of great value to all of America's young people and could be a uniting factor in that the issue transcends party and is critically important to all of us. I hope our school and our community sends a message that we will not allow special interests to paint this as a indoctrination of children. That is an absurd notion.
I headed over to the other high school to eat lunch and watch Obama's speech with my friend and coworker, Becky. Let me just say that I was so, so impressed with this address to students. Obama said everything that I try to tell my at-risk students, each time we meet. But he said it better. I have to repost my favorite excerpts from this speech, because to be honest, it brought tears to my eyes.
Whatever you resolve to do, I want you to commit to it. I want you to really work at it.
...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.
...[people succeed] 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.
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 thte courage to admit when you don't know something, and to learn something new. So find an adult you trust - a parent, granparent 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.
So, now, I ask you...what is so controversial about this speech? Are we not supposed to motivate our students to do better? Are we not supposed to expect great things from America's youth? They are the ones who will be running this country when we all head for retirement. Don't we want them to expect more from themselves, and give more of themselves to their country?
A colleague told me that a friend of hers (who is a school principal!) said her husband wouldn't allow their children to go to school yesterday because of Obama's speech. Please tell me why this makes sense...because I just don't get it.
This is not the first time a president has given an address to students. In fact, the last three presidents to do so were George W. Bush, George H.W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan. All right-leaning Republicans, to say the least. And need I mention that Laura Bush threw her support behind Obama's education speech?
Becky and I watched CNN as some of the emails/comments/phone calls came in after the speech yesterday. One person from Canada wrote in and said something along the lines of, "Whether or not we agree with our Prime Minister's politics, we respect him. And if he were to give an address to our students, they would watch it, plain and simple."
It does indeed seem plain and simple to me.
EDITED TO ADD:
I forgot to mention something else I just wanted to throw in. Yesterday on the news, I saw that an Indiana school district refused to show Obama's speech yesterday, and several high school students protested. The students who spoke on TV did not voice a partisan opinion on either side of the aisle...instead, they stated that Obama's speech was directed at them, and they should have had the choice to watch it or not watch it. Now, all students who protested will be in detention all day on Friday.
Let me further add that this blog post is not written from a partisan standpoint. I did not voice my personal political viewpoint in this post and, instead, am merely voicing my opinion about one specific thing that occurred yesterday.