THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release
September 14, 2010
REMARKS BY THE PRESIDENT
IN BACK TO SCHOOL SPEECH
Julia R. Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration School
1:05 P.M. EDT
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you! Hello! (Applause.) Thank you. Thank you. Well, hello, Philadelphia! (Applause.) And hello, Masterman. It is wonderful to see all of you. What a terrific introduction by Kelly. Give Kelly a big round of applause. (Applause.) I was saying backstage that when I was in high school, I could not have done that. (Laughter.) I would have muffed it up somehow. So we are so proud of you and everything that youve done. And to all the students here, Im thrilled to be here.
Weve got a couple introductions I want to make. First of all, youve got the outstanding governor of Pennsylvania, Ed Rendell, in the house. (Applause.) The mayor of Philadelphia, Michael Nutter, is here. (Applause.) Congressman Chaka Fattah is here. (Applause.) Congresswoman Allyson Schwartz is here. (Applause.) Your own principal, Marge Neff, is here. (Applause.) The school superintendent, Arlene Ackerman, is here and doing a great job. (Applause.) And the Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, is here. (Applause.)
And I am here. (Applause.) And I am thrilled to be here. I am just so excited. Ive heard such great things about what all of you are doing, both the students and the teachers and the staff here.
Today is about welcoming all of you, and all of Americas students, back to school, even though I know youve been in school for a little bit now. And I cant think of a better place to do it than at Masterman. (Applause.) Because you are one of the best schools in Philadelphia. You are a leader in helping students succeed in the classroom. Just last week, you were recognized by a National Blue Ribbon -- as a National Blue Ribbon School because of your record of achievement. And that is a testament to everybody here - to the students, to the parents, to the teachers, to the school leaders. Its an example of excellence that I hope communities across America can embrace.
Over the past few weeks, Michelle and I have been getting Sasha and Malia ready for school. And theyre excited about it. Ill bet they had the same feelings that you do -- youre a little sad to see the summer go, but youre also excited about the possibilities of a new year. The possibilities of building new friendships and strengthening old ones, of joining a school club, or trying out for a team. The possibilities of growing into a better student and a better person and making not just your family proud but making yourself proud.
But I know some of you may also be a little nervous about starting a new school year. Maybe youre making the jump from elementary to middle school, or from middle school to high school, and youre worried about what thats going to be like. Maybe youre starting a new school. Youre not sure how youll like it, trying to figure out how youre going to fit in. Or maybe youre a senior, and youre anxious about the whole college process; about where to apply and whether you can afford to go to college.
And beyond all those concerns, I know a lot of you are also feeling the strain of some difficult times. You know whats going on in the news and you also know whats going on in some of your own families. Youve read about the war in Afghanistan. You hear about the recession that weve been through. And sometimes maybe youre seeing the worries in your parents faces or sense it in their voice.
So a lot of you as a consequence, because were going through a tough time a country, are having to act a lot older than you are. You got to be strong for your family while your brother or sister is serving overseas, or youve got to look after younger siblings while your mom is working that second shift. Or maybe some of you who are little bit older, youre taking on a part-time job while your dads out of work.
And thats a lot to handle. Its more than you should have to handle. And it may make you wonder at times what your own future will look like, whether youre going to be able to succeed in school, whether you should maybe set your sights a little lower, scale back your dreams.
But I came to Masterman to tell all of you what I think youre hearing from your principal and your superintendent, and from your parents and your teachers: Nobody gets to write your destiny but you. Your future is in your hands. Your life is what you make of it. And nothing -- absolutely nothing -- is beyond your reach, so long as youre willing to dream big, so long as youre willing to work hard. So long as youre willing to stay focused on your education, there is not a single thing that any of you cannot accomplish, not a single thing. I believe that.
And that last part is absolutely essential, that part about really working hard in school, because an education has never been more important than it is today. Im sure there are going to be times in the months ahead when youre staying up late doing your homework or cramming for a test, or youre dragging yourself out of bed on a rainy morning and youre thinking, oh, boy, I wish maybe it was a snow day. (Laughter.)
But let me tell you, what youre doing is worth it. There is nothing more important than what youre doing right now. Nothing is going to have as great an impact on your success in life as your education, how youre doing in school.
More and more, the kinds of opportunities that are open to you are going to be determined by how far you go in school. The farther you go in school, the farther youre going to go in life. And at a time when other countries are competing with us like never before, when students around the world in Beijing, China, or Bangalore, India, are working harder than ever, and doing better than ever, your success in school is not just going to determine your success, its going to determine Americas success in the 21st century.
So youve got an obligation to yourselves, and America has an obligation to you, to make sure youre getting the best education possible. And making sure you get that kind of education is going to take all of us working hard and all of us working hand in hand.
It takes all of us in government -- from the governor to the mayor to the superintendent to the President -- all of us doing our part to prepare our students, all of them, for success in the classroom and in college and in a career. Its going to take an outstanding principal, like Principal Neff, and outstanding teachers like the ones you have here at Masterman -- teachers who are going above and beyond the call of duty for their students. And its going to take parents who are committed to your education.
Now, thats what we have to do for you. Thats our responsibility. Thats our job. But youve got a job, too. Youve got to show up to school on time. Youve got to pay attention in your class. Youve got to do your homework. Youve got to study for exams. Youve got to stay out of trouble. Youve got to instill a sense of excellence in everything that you do. That kind of discipline, that kind of drive, that kind of hard work, is absolutely essential for success.
And I can speak from experience here because unlike Kelly, I cant say I always had this discipline. See, I can tell she was always disciplined. I wasnt always disciplined. I wasnt always the best student when I was younger. I made my share of mistakes. I still remember a conversation I had with my mother in high school. I was kind of a goof-off. And I was about the age of some of the folks here. And my grades were slipping. I hadnt started my college applications. I was acting, as my mother put it, sort of casual about my future. I was doing good enough. I was smart enough that I could kind of get by. But I wasnt really applying myself.
And so I suspect this is a conversation that will sound familiar to some students and some parents here today. She decided to sit me down and said I had to change my attitude. My attitude was what I imagine every teenagers attitude is when your parents have a conversation with you like that. I was like, you know, I dont need to hear all this. Im doing okay, Im not flunking out.
So I started to say that, and she just cut me right off. She said, you cant just sit around waiting for luck to see you through. She said, you can get into any school you want in the country if you just put in a little bit of effort. She gave me a hard look and she said, you remember what thats like? Effort? (Laughter.) Some of you have had that conversation. (Laughter.) And it was pretty jolting hearing my mother say that.
But eventually her words had the intended effect, because I got serious about my studies. And I started to make an effort in everything that I did. And I began to see my grades and my prospects improve.
And I know that if hard work could make the difference for me, then it can make a difference for all of you. And I know that there may be some people who are skeptical about that. Sometimes you may wonder if some people just arent better at certain things. You know, well, Im not good at math or Im just not really interested in my science classes.
And it is true that we each have our own gifts, we each have our own talents that we have to discover and nurture. Not everybody is going to catch on in certain subjects as easily as others.
But just because youre not the best at something today doesnt mean you cant be tomorrow. Even if you dont think of yourself as a math person or a science person, you can still excel in those subjects if youre willing to make the effort. And you may find out you have talents you never dreamed of.
Because one of the things Ive discovered is excelling -- whether its in school or in life -- isnt mainly about being smarter than everybody else. Thats not really the secret to success. Its about working harder than everybody else. So dont avoid new challenges -- seek them out, step out of your comfort zone, dont be afraid to ask for help. Your teachers and family are there to guide you. They want to know if youre not catching on to something because they know that if you keep on working at it, youre going to catch on.
Dont feel discouraged; dont give up if you dont succeed at something the first time. Try again, and learn from your mistakes. Dont feel threatened if your friends are doing well; be proud of them, and see what lessons you can draw from what theyre doing right.
Now, Im sort of preaching to the choir here because I know thats the kind of culture of excellence that you promote at Masterman. But Im not just speaking to all of you, Im speaking to kids all across the country. And I want them to all here that same message: Thats the kind of excellence weve got to promote in all of Americas schools.
Thats one of the reasons why Im announcing our second Commencement Challenge. Some of you may have heard of this. If your school is the winner, if you show us how teachers and students and parents are all working together to prepare your kids and your school for college and a career, if you show us how youre giving back to your community and your country, then I will congratulate you in person by speaking at your commencement.
Last year I was in Michigan at Kalamazoo and had just a wonderful time. Although I got to admit, their graduating class was about 700 kids and my hands were really sore at the end of it because I was shaking all of them. (Laughter.)
But the truth is, an education is about more than getting into a good college. Its about more than getting a good job when you graduate. Its about giving each and every one of us the chance to fulfill our promise, and to be the best version of ourselves we can be. And part of that means treating others the way we want to be treated -- with kindness and respect. So thats something else that I want to communicate to students not just here at Masterman but all across the country.
Sometimes kids can be mean to other kids. Lets face it. We dont always treat each other with respect and kindness. Thats true for adults as well, by the way.
And sometimes thats especially true in middle school or high school, because being a teenager isnt easy. Its a time when youre wrestling with a lot of things. When I was in my teens, I was wrestling with all sorts of questions about who I was. I had a white mother and a black father, and my father wasnt around; he had left when I was two. And so there were all kinds of issues that I was dealing with. Some of you may be working through your own questions right now and coming to terms with what makes you different.
And I know that figuring out all of that can be even more difficult when youve got bullies in a class who try to use those differences to pick on you or poke fun at you, to make you feel bad about yourself.
And in some places, the problem is even more serious. There are neighborhoods in my hometown of Chicago, and there are neighborhoods right here in Philadelphia where kids are doing each other serious harm.
So, what I want to say to every kid, every young person -- what I want all of you -- if you take away one thing from my speech, I want you to take away the notion that life is precious, and part of what makes it so wonderful is its diversity, that all of us are different. And we shouldnt be embarrassed by the things that make us different. We should be proud of them, because its the thing that makes us different that makes us who we are, that makes us unique. And the strength and character of this country has always come from our ability to recognize -- no matter who we are, no matter where we come from, no matter what we look like, no matter what abilities we have -- to recognize ourselves in each other.
I was reminded of that idea the other day when I read a letter from Tamerria Robinson. Shes a 12-year-old girl in Georgia. And she told me about how hard she works and about all the community service she does with her brother. And she wrote, I try to achieve my dreams and help others do the same. That, she said, is how the world should work. Thats a pretty good motto. I work hard to achieve my goals and then I try to help others to achieve their goals.
And I agree with Tamerria. Thats how the world should work. But its only going to work that way if all of you get in good habits while youre in school. So, yes, each of us need to work hard. We all have to take responsibilities for our own education. We need to take responsibility for our own lives. But what makes us who we are is that here, in this country, in the United States of America, we dont just reach for our own dreams, we try to help others do the same. This is a country that gives all its daughters and all of its sons a fair chance, a chance to make the most of their lives and fulfill their God-given potential.
And Im absolutely confident that if all of our students -- here at Masterman and across this country -- keep doing their part, if you guys work hard and youre focused on your education, you keep fighting for your dreams and then you help each other reach each others dreams, then youre not only going to succeed this year, youre going to succeed for the rest of your lives. And that means America will succeed in the 21st century.
So my main message to all of you here today: I couldnt be prouder of you. Keep it up. All of you I know are going to do great things in the future. And maybe some time in the 21st century, its going to be one of you thats standing up here speaking to a group of kids as President of the United States.
Thank you. God bless you, and God bless the United States of America. Thank you. (Applause.)
END 1:23 P.M. EDT