ARLINGTON, Va. — In a pep talk that kept clear of politics, President Barack Obama on Tuesday challenged the nation’s students to take pride and ownership in their education — and stick with it even if they don’t like every class or must overcome tough circumstances at home.
“Every single one of you has something that you’re good at. Every single one of you has something to offer,” Obama told students at Wakefield High School in suburban Arlington, Va., and children watching his speech on television in schools across the country. “And you have a responsibility to yourself to discover what that is.”
Presidents often visit schools, and Obama was not the first one to offer a back-to-school address aimed at millions of students in every grade. Yet this speech came with a dose of controversy, as several conservative organizations and many concerned parents warned Obama was trying to sell his political agenda. That concern was caused in part by an accompanying administration lesson plan encouraging students to “help the president,” which the White House later revised.
Obama preceded his broad-scale talk with a meeting with Wakefield students, where at one point he advised them to “be careful what you post on Facebook. Whatever you do, it will be pulled up later in your life.”
Obama, accompanied by Education Secretary Arne Duncan, met with some 40 students gathered in a school library before the speech carried on ESPN and on the White House Web site.
“When I was your age,” Obama said, “I was a little bit of a goof-off. My main goal was to get on the varsity basketball team and have fun.”
The uproar over his speech followed him across the Potomac River, as his motorcade was greeted by a small band of protesters. One carried a sign exclaiming: “Mr. President, stay away from our kids.”
During his meeting inside, one young person asked why the country doesn’t have universal health insurance. “I think we need it. I think we can do it,” Obama replied. The president said the country can afford to insure all Americans and that doing so will save money in the long run.
Obama is not the first president to give such a school-opening talk, but his plans seemed to almost immediately get plunged in controversy. Critics accused him of overstepping his authority, and school districts in some areas decided not to provide their students access to his midday speech.
Duncan acknowledged Tuesday that some of the prepared guidance for school officials included a suggestion that students could compose essays stating how they could help support Obama — an idea the education secretary acknowledged was wrongheaded.
In his conversation with the Wakefield students, Obama said that not having a father at home “forced me to grow up faster.”
One young person asked the president whom he would choose to dine with if he could make only one such selection.
“Gandhi,” Obama replied. “He’s somebody I find a lot of inspiration in. He inspired Dr. (Martin Luther) King” with his message of nonviolence.
“He ended up doing so much and changed the world just by the power of his ethics,” Obama said of the inspirational leader Mahatma Gandhi. At another point, Obama told the students that “a lot of people are counting on me.”
Obama proceeded later with the speech the White House had released a day early, virtually unchanged. The school he chose as the setting for his talk — Wakefield — is the most economically and racially diverse school in Arlington County, according to the Department of Education. Nearly 40 percent of graduating seniors pass an Advanced Placement test. That’s more than twice the national average.
“There is no excuse for not trying” he said in the speech. He said students must be individually responsible for their education, and that it’s important to work hard, pay attention in school and complete assignments.
“Whatever you resolve to do, I want you to commit to it,” Obama said. “The truth is, being successful is hard. You won’t love every subject that you study. You won’t click with every teacher that you have.”
“At the end of the day, 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,” the president said.