White House Releases Obama’s School Speech, Prez Tells Students to “Wash Their Hands”


obama_mail_500pxIn a speech that drew fire even before he delivered it, President Barack Obama is telling the nation’s schoolchildren he “expects great things from each of you.”

“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.”

The White House released Obama’s remarks a short while ago. He’s scheduled to deliver the talk from a school in suburban Arlington, Va., tomorrow.

Obama’s planned talk has proven controversial, with several conservative organizations and individuals accusing him of trying to pitch his arguments too aggressively in a local-education setting. White House officials, including Education Secretary Arne Duncan, have said the allegations are silly.

In the remarks set for tomorrow, Obama tells young people that all the work of parents, educators and others won’t matter “unless you show up for those schools, pay attention to those teachers.”

Obama made no reference in his prepared remarks to the uproar surrounding his speech. Nor did he make an appeal for support of tough causes like health care reform. He used the talk to tell kids about his at-times clumsy ways as a child and to urge them to identify an area of interest, set goals and work hard to achieve them.

The president acknowledged that “it’s hard to be successful,” but told the students the country badly needs their best effort to cope in an increasingly competitive global economy.

“What you make of your education will decide nothing less than the future of this country,” Obama says. “What you’re learning in school today will determine whether we as a nation can meet our greatest challenges in the future.”

Obama noted that he was raised by a single mother, who made him buckle down and work harder at times. He said he’s glad she did.

The president also warned students that if they quit on school, “you’re not just quitting on yourself, you’re quitting on your country.”

Some conservatives have urged schools and parents to boycott the address. They say Obama is using the opportunity to promote a political agenda.

Schools don’t have to show the speech. And some districts have decided not to, partly in response to concerns from parents.

Duncan’s department has also taken heat for proposed lesson plans distributed to accompany the speech.

On Sunday, the secretary acknowledged that a section about writing to the president on how students can help him meet education goals was poorly worded. It has been changed.

“We just clarified that to say write a letter about your own goals and what you’re going to do to achieve those goals,” Duncan said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

Former Republican Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush delivered similar speeches to students, the White House has said.

Obama will deliver the speech Tuesday at Wakefield High School in Arlington, Va. It will be shown live on the White House Web site and on C-SPAN at noon EDT.

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.

{The White House/WCBS/Matzav.com Newscenter}


  1. I am not a big fan of Obama, but I don’t understand (yes, I do) why there was such a big fuss. This speech is pure vanilla, apolitical, and a pretty good pep talk to students about why it’s important to get a good education.

    There are more important issues to contend with, but this speech ain’t one of them!

  2. “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.”

    All liberal agendas. Not one word about protecting our country against our enemies.

  3. To #2:
    Thank G-D he didn’t mention “protecting our country against our enemies”.
    Do you really believe that a student should strive to succeed just so he would be able to defense his country?

  4. He is an unkosher pot. Anything that comes from his mouth is treif. I certainly don’t want my children to learn respect for him. The next question will be ‘why not listen to this other thing he says? You said he says wise things!’ No, my children need to know that his ideals and morals are poison, if he says something sensible there are good places to learn it from.

  5. Yesterday in my car I heard a town hall meeting in Virginia. It was very scary. A man said that he had heard that the health care bill was being written by Socialists and Communists in Washington. He was loud and disruptive and was loudly cheered. The person who responded had trouble being heard over the noise.
    My concern is that the US may be in a situation similar to that in Israel just before Rabin’s assassination. The debate on health care is not being done in a civil manner. The person of the President is being attacked in a very hateful way.The civil discourse of democracy is replaced by yelling and screaming and tactics that deny any validity to the President or to the majority of the American people who elected him.
    The refusal of many schools to allow the President’s 18 minute message on education to be broadcast in their classes because” he will try to indoctrinate them to socialism “is a new low. Not only are the children not being taught to show respect for the office of President but they are being taught that their duly elected President is an evil man. How did American politics sink to this gutter, anti-democratic level.
    I really wonder if all of my Republican friends, who seem to be the majority in the frum community share my concern for the life of President Obama. I feel that racism has a lot to do with it. As much as they hated Clinton, it was a different kind of hate.

  6. L. Oberstien you are right in that the rhetoric has gone beyond civil debate. However, there is good cause. This man is against everything we as religious and moral people stand for; He advocates toeivah, is pro-choice, is against Israel and our allies, and he is for every evil government in the world. He villifies and robs from the haves to give his cronies, takes positions on business, health care, car companies, banks as if he knows something about these areas and indeed claims expertise in all of them. In the meantime he dimantles America’s strength and sells us off to the Chinese and arabs who are buying their way into America by lending us the trillions he seeks. He is ignorant and confident at the same time.

    I will not teach my children to respect him; it would be teaching them to grow up as a rabble rouser and you can be president no matter how little you know. He is an embarrasment to the democratic process and this country. It’s only a matter of time till those who voted for him will be able to admit it.

    The underlying message of these town meetings and anti-obama in the classroom movements is not in these acts themselves. It’s an expression of fear and loathing for the man, his beliefs and actions. Keep him away from me and my children.

  7. Where were you for eight years when Bush was attacked as the devil incarnate?

    The rhetoric against Obama has not come up to knees of that against Bush.

    I don’t think either of the two are Tzaddikim, but to vilify those who speak loudly against Obama does not seem so sincere, to say the least.

    Unless, of course, you condemned those who spouted hatred and very personalized defamation against Bush as well, and your plea is unrelated to partisanship.

  8. ChaimZ said: “Keep him away from me and my children” (comment 8).

    How is it that President Obama’s address will be heard by your children? Are they in public school?

    I am a recently retired NY City public (middle) school teacher who always appeared in the classroom with yarmulke and beard. My school (as is true of many urban school systems) is exclusively minority. Believe me, I tried heartily to motivate my students who, for the most part, have absolutely no culture for education. They naively believe that they will become famous ‘rappers’ or NBA stars and therefore rarely cared much about school work.

    Now comes a President who, for the first time in history, looks like them. If Mr. Obama did not try to become a role model to these kids, then I would accuse him of neglecting a major opportunity. I may find his policies towards Israel abhorrent…but it has nothing to do with the positive effect he can have by stressing a universal message to kids who really need to hear it: STAY IN SCHOOL BECAUSE YOUR EDUCATION IS IMPORTANT! How anybody can criticize him for this is beyond me.