Deep into the presidential campaign last year, I was stunned to learn that a significant number of my high school students had never heard Barack Obama speak. They'd heard of him, but had no clue about anything he stood for. This was shocking to me; I listened to the guy and his surrogates practically every night on TV. I knew the Obama brand inside out. My D.C. pupils, living in a news vacuum, had had no exposure to him.
I set to work on filling this void by introducing campaign-related reading and activities in my class. However, there is no doubt that, for all sorts of reasons, many students across the country are simply tuned out.
That's why Obama's back-to-school speech matters. It probably won't make a significant imprint on kids who read the paper everyday, with parents discussing current events. They've already heard the president discuss personal responsibility. They know how their president speaks.
However, the back-to-school speech does have a real chance to touch the typically disconnected students, and that is a substantial upside. These kids are not absorbing the most basic civics information at home; school has to pick up the slack. There is a psychic cost to not knowing a larger world beyond your immediate day-to-day life; American kids need to know their president, whether they support his policy agenda or not.
They don't need to back his healthcare agenda or weigh in on his military spending, but they do need to know what he's about. That's the barest minimum that a responsible, participatory democracy should settle for.
In the actual speech, the messages Obama offered were all positive, non-controversial, and framed in ways that students could understand. My favorite snippets:
On discovering talent through schoolwork:
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.
On embracing challenges and failure:
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.
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.
I look forward to showing the speech to my students when they return to school tomorrow. It's sad that a ludicrous kerfuffle launched by Glenn Beck lemmings has precluded many kids from hearing their president's ideas--- from horse's mouth. There's a substantial benefit in taking a few minutes in one school day for all students to listen to their chief executive address them.
President Obama delivered an excellent speech; here's hoping America's students listened. Now the real work begins again to support and drive our nation's youth to realize their profound potential.
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Dan Brown is the author of The Great Expectations School: A Rookie Year in the New Blackboard Jungle.
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