Obama Lectures to Students on Virtues of Hard Work

Public schools across D.C. and Maryland welcome students back to class.
By Michael Allison Chandler, Nick Anderson and William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, September 8, 2009; 2:29 PM

President Obama, shrugging off a controversy over his appearance at a Northern Virginia high school, challenged students Tuesday to develop their skills and take responsibility for their education.

In a visit to Wakefield High School in Arlington, Obama used the post-Labor Day reopening of schools in Northern Virginia and other parts of the country to meet with students and deliver a lunchtime pep talk that was broadcast to schools across the country.

He told students that "if you quit on school, you're not just quitting on yourself, you're quitting on your country."

Obama described his own upbringing, noting that he "got in more trouble than I should have" as a youth. He told the students, "There is no excuse for not trying. No one has written your destiny for you, because here in America you write your own destiny."

Obama met privately with a group of 9th graders before the speech, which was broadcast live to thousands of classrooms across the country.

He made no mention of the controversy over his school appearance in his speech or in the meeting with students. Some conservatives had attributed political motives to the appearance. However, in response to students' questions in the meeting with the 9th graders, Obama touted his health-care reform plan, saying he found motivation to overhaul the health-care system in some of the letters he receives from ordinary Americans.

"Some of those stories are really depressing," Obama said, according to a transcript. "And that motivates you because you say, 'Well, I can't make everything perfect. I can't prevent somebody from getting sick. But maybe I can make sure that they've got insurance so that when they do get sick, they're going to get some help.' "

In response to another student's question, Obama said that "the majority of Americans still have health insurance through their job, and . . . most of them are happy with it. But a lot of people fall through the cracks." He added: "So what we're trying to do is set up a system where people who have health insurance on the job . . . can keep it, but if you don't have health insurance for the job, if you're self-employed, if you're unemployed, that you're able to get health insurance through another way. And we can afford to do it, and it will actually, I think, over time save us money if we set that up."

One student asked Obama, "If you could have dinner with anyone, dead or alive, who would it be?" The president replied: "I think that it might be Gandhi, who is a real hero of mine. Now, it would probably be a really small meal."

He said he found "a lot of inspiration" in the leader of India's nonviolent independence movement and noted that Gandhi had also inspired the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and labor leader Cesar Chavez.

Gandhi "helped people who thought they had no power realize that they had power, and then helped people who had a lot of power realize that if all they're doing is oppressing people, then that's not a really good exercise of power," Obama said. "So, you know, I'm always interested in people who are able to bring about change, not through violence, not through money, but through the force of their personality and their ethical and moral stances."

When another student told Obama that he "would like to have your job" when he grows up and asked for advice, Obama said that, for starters, everyone should be "careful about what you post on Facebook" because "when you're young, you know, you make mistakes and you do some stupid stuff."

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