by Christopher Paslay
The brouhaha surrounding Barack Obama’s speech to our nation’s school children, to use a cliché, was much ado about nothing. In the end, the President’s address was not only squeaky clean but quite inspirational to boot.
Using examples from his own life and from the lives of other students who have overcome serious educational roadblocks (such as poverty, brain cancer, and English language issues), the President explained that each and every one of us can achieve success and reach our goals.
“Where you are right now doesn’t have to determine where you’ll end up,” Mr. Obama told the audience. “No one’s written your destiny for you. Here in America, you write your own destiny. You make your own future.”
No matter what your political affiliation, the idea of personal responsibility has to sound appealing. I have to admit that for me, Obama’s words were quite refreshing.
“But at the end of the day,” the President said, “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.”
On Wednesday I played the speech for all of my classes. I was impressed with my students’ level of interest in Mr. Obama’s words. There was pin-drop silence in the classroom for 17 straight minutes, and I could see my 11th graders were not only listening but hearing.
It’s moving to see so many young people looking up to the President as a role model. In Philadelphia, there’s no doubt that Barack Obama has a much stronger connection to students than George W. Bush (or any other recent president) has ever had, and this is a wonderful and powerful thing.
For homework I had my students write the President a three paragraph letter in response to his speech (not the most original assignment but a good back-to-school ice breaker). In it they were required to introduce themselves, state their goals and how they were going to go about achieving them. They were also given the opportunity to react to the President’s speech—state whether they agreed or disagreed with what he said.
I was very pleased with the response I got from my students. Their letters were sincere, and their goals were commendable (and surprisingly realistic). Many talked about staying focused in school so they could graduate and move on to college or a technical academy.
One student majoring in Culinary Arts wrote, “I would like to take my talent to California and work as a chef at the French Laundry.”
Another student was shooting for perfect attendance, and planned on graduating with honors and going on to pharmaceutical college.
One of the most moving letters was from a girl who was diagnosed with a learning disability. She wrote, “As a young girl, my mother was told I would probably never be able to read. . . . It was always my goal to prove that a person with a learning disability can do great things and overcome their disability. . . . Your speech inspired me to continue my ways in school so I can succeed and help my country. Thank you!”
Next week in class we are going to edit and rewrite these letters, and then email them to the White House. My students keep asking me, “Do you think the President will read them? No way! He doesn’t have time for that.”
But I tell my students stranger things have happened. I’ve written many letters to many different people (famous and ordinary), and have gotten some surprising responses; two years ago, after I had my Creative Writing students write a 30 page screenplay and a query letter to a Hollywood literary agency, one of my kids got a reply. The agent ended up passing on the script, but my student was in the clouds for days. Later in the year I got a call from his mother, explaining that he was getting serious about writing films.
President Obama’s back-to-school speech was a positive experience for my students. I am glad I was able to sift through the political controversy and listen to it in my classes.