The President’s Back to School Speech
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The President’s Back to School Speech

Good afternoon, everyone. Today, I’d like to
welcome to the J.R. Masterman Laboratory and
Demonstration School, President Barack Obama. (applause) It is a great honor for
me to be here today, speaking for the students of my
school, my city, and my country. When I first learned that I
would be the one to introduce Barack Obama to our school,
I thought to myself: Wow, I’m so lucky to
have this privilege. What a great year to be
student body president. (laughter) However, the truth is,
I’m not here by luck. I’m here because I
had determination, because I had aspirations,
because I had unwavering support from my family,
my friends, and my school. They have all helped me to grow
and develop into who I am now. This school — this community,
has taught me to work, share, learn and laugh with others. The teachers and staff have
given me and all of the students here the opportunity to
progress academically, emotionally and independently. It is this sense of community,
the sense of belonging that is bestowed upon all the students
who have passed their years at Masterman that has
bread me for success. And I will settle for
nothing short of it. I encourage every student to
take on this same mentality. And now, it is my great
pleasure to introduce to you, someone who has achieved the
success that we all hope for, and gone beyond to change the
very nation in which we live. Ladies and gentlemen, please
welcome the President of the United States, Mr. Barack Obama. (applause) President Obama:
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 you’ve done. And to all the students here,
I’m thrilled to be here. We’ve got a couple
introductions I want to make. First of all, you’ve 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. I’ve 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 America’s
students, back to school, even though I know you’ve been
in school for a little bit now. And I can’t 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. It’s 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 they’re excited about it. I’ll bet they had the same
feelings that you do — you’re a little sad to see the summer go,
but you’re 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 you’re making the jump
from elementary to middle school, or from middle
school to high school, and you’re worried about what
that’s going to be like. Maybe you’re starting
a new school. You’re not sure
how you’ll like it, trying to figure out how
you’re going to fit in. Or maybe you’re a senior, and
you’re 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 what’s going on in the
news and you also know what’s going on in some of
your own families. You’ve read about the
war in Afghanistan. You hear about the recession
that we’ve been through. And sometimes maybe you’re
seeing the worries in your parents’ faces or sense
it in their voice. So a lot of you
as a consequence, because we’re going through
a tough time as 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
you’ve got to look after younger siblings while your mom is
working that second shift. Or maybe some of you who
are little bit older, you’re taking on a part-time job
while your dad’s out of work. And that’s a lot to handle. It’s more than you
should have to handle. And it may make you wonder at
times what your own future will look like, whether you’re 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 you’re 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 you’re
willing to dream big, so long as you’re
willing to work hard. So long as you’re 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. I’m sure there are going to be
times in the months ahead when you’re staying up late doing
your homework or cramming for a test, or you’re dragging
yourself out of bed on a rainy morning and you’re
thinking, oh, boy, I wish maybe it was a snow day. (laughter) But let me tell you, what
you’re doing is worth it. There is nothing more
important than what you’re doing right now. Nothing is going to have as
great an impact on your success in life as your education,
how you’re 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 you’re 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,
it’s going to determine America’s success
in the 21st century. So you’ve got an
obligation to yourselves, and America has an
obligation to you, to make sure you’re 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. It’s 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 it’s going to take
parents who are committed to your education. Now, that’s what we
have to do for you. That’s our responsibility. That’s our job. But you’ve got a job, too. You’ve got to show
up to school on time. You’ve got to pay
attention in your class. You’ve got to do your homework. You’ve got to study for exams. You’ve got to stay
out of trouble. You’ve 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 can’t say I always
had this discipline. See, I can tell she
was always disciplined. I wasn’t always disciplined. I wasn’t 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 hadn’t 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 wasn’t 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 teenager’s attitude is when your parents have a
conversation with you like that. I was like, you know, I
don’t need to hear all this. I’m doing okay, I’m
not flunking out. So I started to say that, and
she just cut me right off. She said, you can’t 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
that’s 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 aren’t better at certain things. You know, well, I’m not good
at math or I’m 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 you’re not the
best at something today doesn’t mean you can’t be tomorrow. Even if you don’t think of
yourself as a math person or a science person, you can still
excel in those subjects if you’re willing to
make the effort. And you may find out you have
talents you never dreamed of. Because one of the things I’ve
discovered is excelling — whether it’s in school or in
life — isn’t mainly about being smarter than everybody else. That’s not really the
secret to success. It’s about working harder
than everybody else. So don’t avoid new
challenges — seek them out, step out of your comfort zone,
don’t be afraid to ask for help. Your teachers and family
are there to guide you. They want to know if you’re not
catching on to something because they know that if you
keep on working at it, you’re going to catch on. Don’t feel discouraged; don’t
give up if you don’t succeed at something the first time. Try again, and learn
from your mistakes. Don’t feel threatened if
your friends are doing well; be proud of them, and see what
lessons you can draw from what they’re doing right. Now, I’m sort of preaching
to the choir here because I know that’s the kind of
culture of excellence that you promote at Masterman. But I’m not just
speaking to all of you, I’m speaking to kids
all across the country. And I want them to all here that
same message: That’s the kind of excellence we’ve got to promote
in all of America’s schools. That’s one of the reasons why
I’m 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 you’re 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. But the truth is, an education
is about more than getting into a good college. It’s about more than getting
a good job when you graduate. It’s 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 that’s 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. Let’s face it. We don’t always treat each other
with respect and kindness. That’s true for adults
as well, by the way. And sometimes that’s especially
true in middle school or high school, because being
a teenager isn’t easy. It’s a time when you’re
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 wasn’t 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 you’ve 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 shouldn’t be
embarrassed by the things that make us different. We should be proud of them,
because it’s 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. She’s 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.” That’s 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. That’s how the
world should work. But it’s only going to work that
way if all of you get in good habits while you’re 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 don’t 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 I’m 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 you’re focused on your education, you keep fighting
for your dreams and then you help each other reach
each other’s dreams, then you’re not only going
to succeed this year, you’re 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 couldn’t 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, it’s going to be one of
you that’s 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)

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