They warned of socialist indoctrination, political propaganda, and all manner of sorcery and witchcraft. School districts throughout the country, particularly in Texas and Virginia, declined to show the speech. In those districts that did show it, some parents demanded that their children be excluded. As reported in today's New York Times, a fourth-grade girl at an elementary school in Greensboro, North Carolina, sat alone eating her lunch as the rest of her classmates watched the speech in an adjoining classroom. Some parents even kept their children home from school, rather than --God forbid -- they watch a fifteen minute inspirational talk by the President of the United States.
Given the hype and controversy leading up to the speech, one would expect that it was a real hum-dinger, perhaps a flowery manifesto in support of Big Government, Death Panels, Income Re-Distribution, and Taxes. Perhaps an attempt to brainwash our children into becoming servants of the State, followers of Karl Marx, and believers in socialized medicine. Well, not quite. As it turns out, after several days of right-wing conspiracy theories and talk radio venom, the President in the end spoiled the day.
Instead, the President spoke of the importance of education and of every students' individual responsibility to attend school, "pay attention" to teachers, listen to parents and grandparents, and "put in the hard work it takes to succeed." He instructed that, "no matter what you do in life, I guarantee that you'll need an education to do it. . . . You cannot drop out of school and just drop into a good job. You've got to train for it and work for it and learn for it."
He spoke from the heart of the emotional pain growing up as a fatherless child; of how he "missed having a father" and recalled "times when I was lonely and I felt like I didn't fit in." He understood that some students did not have adults in their lives to provide an affirming presence and much needed support; that some children live in neighborhoods "where you don't feel safe, or have friends who are pressuring you to do things you know aren't right." But no matter one's lot in life, the President admonished that "none of that is an excuse for talking back to your teacher, or cutting class, or dropping out of school. There is no excuse for not trying." He recited inspirational examples of students who have overcome tremendous odds -- language barriers, cancer, foster homes and tough neighborhoods -- and through hard work and perseverance have gone on to college and, in one case, medical school. These students succeeded and overcame great obstacles, simply because they "chose to take responsibility for their lives, for their education, and [to] set goals for themselves. And I expect all of you to do the same."
He spoke of the need to experience failure before one can experience success, using as examples J.K. Rowling, whose first Harry Potter book was rejected by 12 publishing companies before it was finally accepted, and Michael Jordan, who was cut from his high school basketball team during his freshman year. "You become good at things through hard work. . . . You've got to practice. . . . You might have to do a math problem a few times before you get it right. You might have to read something a few times before you understand it. You definitely have to do a few drafts of a paper before it's good enough to hand in." He said that no one should be afraid to ask questions or "for help when you need it. I do that every day."
"The story of America," the President said, is not "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." He urged all of the students to put their best efforts into everything they did, and that he expected great things from all of them. "So don't let us down. Don't let your family down or your country down. Most of all, don't let yourself down."
If this is socialist indoctrination, then please dish out some more. I feel sorry for the fourth grader in Greensboro, for it is not her fault that she was cursed with such close minded, intolerant parents, so full of fear and paranoia that they cannot permit their daughter to listen to the President of the United States speak about hard work and responsibility. But as for the school children in Philadelphia, and Camden, and the Bronx, and throughout most of America, I am really pleased that they sat and listened to the President's talk. It is these students for whom the President's message may have the most resonance, students who understand that the President's heart is in the right place, that he really does want all of them -- black or white, rich or poor, male or female -- to succeed; that he wants America to be a better country than we are now or have ever been. He believes in America's youth, because he believes in America. As one young middle schooler from Denver said, "I think it was pretty cool to have the leader of the country speaking to us." As for my kids, the President can speak to them any time his heart desires.